In Cairo in May I caught up with photographer Xenia Nikolskaya. She had an exhibition at the Townhouse gallery in support of her new book Dust. I wrote the following short piece about her work for Voyager magazine:
On a side street lined with a shanty town of car mechanics’ workshops, the ruined Palace of Prince Said Halim stands like a marooned set from a grand Italian opera. It’s been derelict for decades and access to it is denied by a rusting padlocked iron gate. But photographer Xenia Nikolskaya knows who has the key and a little baksheesh gets the gate opened. We enter and wander through halls scattered with the debris of collapsing ceilings and wind-blown trash.
Russian-born Nikolskaya spent six years visiting and photographing similarly forgotten spaces in cities around Egypt. The rooms she portrays are empty, but her painterly compositions and lambent lighting (which in most cases is natural) serve to give the impression that these are stage sets, only waiting for the arrival of the actors.
The reality is that most of the buildings she has photographed are doomed. They are relics of a time when central Cairo was home to princes and pashas; today’s teeming, overpopulated city has no use for the ornate marbled palaces and playthings of its former aristocracy. So they stand empty, unsuitable for purpose, stagnating – although not entirely impervious to change. Nikolskaya points to a spot above a door in one of the rooms in Said Halim’s palace: ‘When I first came here in 2007, there was a picture of President Mubarak hanging there. Now he’s gone.’
Dust by Xenia Nikolskaya is published by Dewi Lewis, £30.