Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dust... and its white silence

Xenia Nokolskaya's photographs on show at the Townhouse Gallery evoke an Egypt that is gone but not yet forgotten. Osama Kamal reports

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Pictures from Nikolskaya's Dust project. Clockwise from top: Serageddin's mansion; schools; the photographer; Minya; schools;and Touson's villa

Xenia Nikolskaya came to Egypt for the first time in 2003, just another photographer visiting Egypt's archaeological sites. In 2006 she returned with a purpose: to study and photograph Egyptian Coptic art. It was then that she had a chance encounter that altered her view of Egypt almost entirely. She came upon an abandoned building in Garden City; it was a mansion that belonged to the Serageddin family. The building was silent and mysterious, but majestic. Covered in wind-blown dust, caught in the cobweb of shifting fortunes, it reeked with history. Her instincts insisted on leading her o to visit it, and with the help of a friend she succeeded in gaining entrance.

Nikolskaya describes the empty space inside as being like no other. Her eyes feasted in every corner on antique furniture, ornate decoration and palatial paraphernalia, and she fell in love.

The mansion was built by a German financier in 1908. It was bought by the Serageddin family in 1928, and is now used only by the family only for special occasions.

The abandoned mansion became the theme for a larger project. Dust, the photography project on which she embarked, lasted more than four years and took her to Alexandria, Luxor, Minya, Esna, Port Said, and various villages in the countryside. There she photographed abandoned buildings, homes and businesses, emblems of a bygone era, establishments that survived but only just, still existing despite the disuse and the neglect, the abuse and the dilapidation.

Dust, which is showing at the Townhouse Gallery mid-June, brings us images of these buildings, enchanting despite the passage of time, visually titillating and historically tantalising.

Dust has also been launched as a book, published by Dewi Lewis and containing 70 photographs from 30 different sites.

Nikolskaya was born in 1973 to a Swedish father and a Russian mother. She graduated from the St Petersburg Art Academy and went on to study at the Danish Royal Academy for Fine Arts. She has been a professional photographer since 1995, during which time she has had several exhibitions and has sold her work to Newsweek and Cosmopolitan. She taught photography at the Russian Academy of Arts and is currently a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo.

Speaking about Dust, Nikolskaya elaborates on its connotations to change, sudden and slow. "Dust is time. The dust that settles in abandoned places contains the whole life of people who were here and are gone, or perhaps are going to come back."

In Dust, Nikolskaya tries to document the abandoned buildings of Cairo, many of which belong to the time when cosmopolitanism was synonymous with culture.

"There are areas in Egyptian cities that are blessed with exquisite architectural styles, denoting the fusion of oriental culture with western taste," she told me when we met a few days ago,

When Nikolskaya showed Dust images in Russia and Sweden, people did not quite believe that the places shown in the photographs were Egyptian because they resembled so closely parts of Europe.

The photographs document venues that were built in the late 19th century, when foreigners sought fame and fortune in Egypt. The foreign presence in Cairo exploded after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and only began to decline with the Suez war in 1956.

Of all the places shown in her photographs, Nikolskaya says that she is enamoured with the Serageddin mansion. "It is the first seed of my project and it inspired me to photograph other places in and outside Cairo," she told me. Among the places featured in her work are the Touson Villa in Alexandria, the Helmiya School; the Said Halim Palace on Champollion Street; Qasr al-Dubara; the Sakakini Palace; the Alexandria Atelier; several buildings on Mahmoud Bassiouni Street; and a number of schools, hotels, houses and consulate buildings in Esna, Minya and Port Said.

Many of the places photographed in Dust are threatened with demolition because of the current demand for land in the capital.

"Like Cartier-Bresson (1908 ê" 2004), I am a believer in the decisive moment. I try to capture moments in life and preserve it. The goal is to capture this decisive moment, the moment that separates an instance of beauty from an instance of genius. It is a moment that depends on a heightened awareness of time, precision, and insight. It is like a white silence."

Nineteen of Nikolskaya's photographs are on show in the Townhouse, each with a story of its own, each inhabiting its separate world. The location could not be more fitting, since the Townhouse occupies such an old building just across from the Said Halim Palace on Champollion Street.

Each image is enchanting in an ineffable manner: the peeling walls, the faded decoration, the musty carpets, the empty rooms, and the old furniture; everything speaks not just of nostalgia but of life -- both intense and absent.

The images are haunting: the seats awaiting the audience in Cairo music halls; the hotels shorn of customers in Minya; the European haunts on Mahmoud Bassiouni; the staircases of the Sakakini Palace; the abandoned American consulate in Port Said and the stuffed animals in the Agriculture Museum in Dokki.

Nikolskaya speaks of life under the dust, dreams of memories that we can only guess at, of lives as rich as ours, of passage and change.

"There is dust in Cairo, it fills the air and hides beneath it layers of time. I tried to fathom its silence, to bring it into view, to defend its presence, before it disappears."

According to Nikolskaya, Cairo is not just the pyramids, the Sphinx, or even the Coptic and Islamic ruins. "Cairo is a gatekeeper of eras. It tried to capture its time, the time in which cultures juxtaposed and cross pollinated."

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