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Present Past 
About the photographer Xenia Nikolskaya

Originally published in Swedish at Dixikon


On the sideboard in the Russian-born photographer Xenia Nikolskaya's living room stands a framed photograph, 70×90 cm, of a stately interior. It is the turquoise wall on the left that first catches the eye, then the marble column in the middle, then the gold-framed mirror in the background. For a brief moment, you think it is a reprint of something from an interior design magazine or one of those coffee-table books about superb, enviable Riviera villas inhabited by barons and painters. But then a corridor invites you through a half-open door where a simple, anachronistic chair stands, illuminated by a dusty streak of sunlight but still alone and lost. Something’s not right.

You turn back to the grand salon. The floor, you now see, is full of dust and trash, and the veneer is completely worn off. The painting of the turquoise wall was apparently aborted abruptly; the paint only reaches some ways up the wall, to where a bunch of electric wires sprout. What we are actually looking at is the scraped interior of an abandoned and decaying turn-of-the-century palace, Villa Casdagli, in Cairo. It is abundantly obvious that it was built with the best of materials, for extremely well-to-do families for whom "good enough" was not good enough, and that it was once overwhelmingly beautiful, with its exquisite ornamentation and stucco work. And in Nikolskaya's photography, it is beautiful still.





















Villa Casdagli, from Dust, (c) Xenia Nikolskaya. Reproduced with permission of AUC Press.



The photograph is part of a series that was exhibited at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and adorns the cover of Nikolskaya's book Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture (AUC Press, 2022), in which she has collected eighty-two images of interiors in the same state, taken around the country over several years. Anyone who has ever strolled around Garden City, a neighborhood in ​​Old Cairo at a stone's throw from Tahrir Square, has seen this kind of villa from the outside, enclosed by wrought-iron fences and overgrown trees.

Many of them are built out of sandstone, but over the decades they have accumulated a layer of desert sand and urban pollution which has made the facades grayish brown. It was in connection with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 that such palaces were built in the center of Cairo, for aristocrats. The exteriors are so beautiful that, as you gaze at them while zigzagging between cars and street dogs, you don't know what to do with yourself. But few have, like Nikolskaya, also been allowed to enter and see the remainders of elegance they hold within.

The tragedy of the buildings Nikolskaya documents is that they will probably never come back to life, since houses only really live through the people who inhabit them. Even in the cases where these properties have owners, these often number in the dozens -- children and grandchildren of those who last lived there, and who now cannot agree on what to do with the property. Renovate, rent, sell, demolish? A desperate young man recently contacted Nikolskaya to ask for her help in saving the old villa he himself co-owns. A majority of his relatives want to sell it to Gulf investors who plan to raze the house to the ground and build something new and atrocious in its place.

But it is only the dusty interiors that interest Nikolskaya, not the dust without. Shot in natural light, empty and devoid of people, her images capture the almost eerie desolation.

The houses that are still furnished feel bizarre and even make you a little uneasy. Freshly made beds, conscientiously arranged sofa cushions and photos of mothers and fathers on the walls. Did the last inhabitants leave in a rush, did they run for their lives? Many of them did, indeed, during the 1952 revolution.

But for some, the reasons for abandoning the properties were probably financial. They simply could not afford to maintain these palaces. Maybe they were also tired of the old style; maybe there was no one left who remembered the people in those photographs. Along the wall down a flight of stairs in the building that once housed the American consulate in Port Said, someone has, like a Stone Age cave painter, left a whole series of rusty-brown handprints. It is blood, Nikolskaya tells me. According to an ancient rite, you wet your hands in the blood of the animal you have just slaughtered – it is supposed to bring luck. But here it feels more like someone wanted to mark the death of the building on his way down the stairs, before shutting the front door behind him for the last time. 



The American consulate in Port Said, from Dust, (c) Xenia Nikolskaya. Reproduced with permission from AUC Press.



Is Dust then a nostalgic book? Not entirely, even though most of Nikolskaya's other projects also deal with the old, the past. But Nikoskaya is a “futurist,” as she puts it in her characteristically spirited way. "I believe in science, progress, feminism. But I like old things because they tell a story.” And indeed what attracts us in the photos is the tension between the beautiful and the broken, where the passage of time becomes visible; and the patina, which gives manmade things an air of the organic. While newly built or perfectly renovated buildings often feel sterile or even abstract, we feel a kinship with aged things. After all, we too live in time, we too are subject to entropy.

At the same time, ancient things bear witness to the fact that man is by nature forward-looking -- a "futurist" in Nikolskaya’s word. The ruins of a bygone era indirectly tell us about that time's visions and faith in the future. The photo that illustrates this most succinctly for me – and not in a depressing way, but triumphantly, encouragingly – is number 78 in Dust, from the Sultana Malak Palace in Cairo's Heliopolis.

Between a dark marble column and a wall of windows, we see a white sculpture in ancient Greek style. A naked woman – Aphrodite? – lies semi-recumbent, supported by one arm with the other outstretched, the hand appearing to be holding something. Was there ever a physical object there, was it lost somewhere along the way to 2011? With her head slightly tilted back, she looks at the hand and thus, in the absence of any object, seems to be gazing at an idea or feeling that this hand expresses through the language of gestures. It is the same gesture I would use to express the beauty of the image, which defies words.




















From Dust,  (c) Xenia Nikolskaya, reproduced with permission from AUC Press.


The Greeks portrayed people naked because, unlike most other ancient civilizations, they believed that man was perfect just as nature had made him. For the same reason, they imagined their gods as people who lived on earth. This god-woman is at home in the natural world; it is here that she can flourish. What’s it to her that the ceiling above has collapsed and been replaced by makeshift plywood?

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The House My Grandfather Built , the self-published book that was awarded the Swedish Photobook Prize in 2021, is also characterized by patina. It tells the story of Nikolskaya's grandmother, a geologist who took a job in Siberia to be close to her husband who had been interned in a Gulag labor camp. Once he was released, the couple returned to Saint Petersburg in whose outskirts they built a dacha. 

The old black and white photos, which Nikolskaya reproduces in the book, have grace and gravitas. They are interspersed with facsimiles of IDs and other bureaucratic documents from the time in question, as well as with Nikolskaya's own photos, which show the beautiful house and orchard today, along with suburban scenes marked by Soviet poverty and decay. These are slightly grainy, with saturated colors in delicious broken shades. The sparse captions together make up a story while ceding pride of place and giving breathing space to the images, these little slices of life, fascinating human destinies that are both deeply personal and pregnant with historical-political significance.




Available at Konst/ig Books

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As a photographer, Nikolskaya is self-taught. She studied art history at the Imperial Academy of Arts and for a while dabbled in archeology. Her first artistic project consisted of a series of photos of details of Russian icons, enlarged ten times from 6×7 – not mainly of the saints, but of the icons' curlicue ornaments and other patterns. The images thus become abstract, and Nikolskaya notes that in this way she was moving in the opposite direction of Malevich. Like many other contemporary Russian artists, he began as an icon painter – a way to learn the rudiments of painting for those who could not afford the art academy. He went from the figurative and sacred to the abstract painting with which he earned his place in the history of art.


From the series Precious Items, (c) Xenia Nikolskaya


Nikolskaya thus did the opposite: she made abstraction out of the figurative and sacred. Nevertheless, her photos manage to capture the piety and devotion with which the icons were painted. If we saw them in a church, we wouldn't notice all those beautiful details. Nor did the icon painters expect that the worshippers, when they kissed these icons or made the sign of the cross before them, would see all the ornaments and be delighted by them as such. But they added them anyway, because an icon is not just a surface for aesthetic or religious contemplation. Icons offer direct contact with God, and it is the material object as a whole, not just what it represents, that is sacred. And this all-knowing God sees every line and every dot, just as we now get to do too, thanks to Nikolskaya's photos.

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At the time of writing, Nikolskaya is working on two different projects. The first – Plastic Jesus – also concerns worship. Here she documents the religious paraphernalia of the Egyptian Copts, often made of cheap, synthetic materials: luminescent plastic miniature altars, Madonnas on polyester cushions, key rings with neon Jesus figures. These objects are in a way the exact opposite of the classic Russian Orthodox icons. Many people would not only think that these are tacky, but that it is blasphemy to represent the sacred in this way. And in the West, plastic – with its disastrous impact on the environment – ​​has become materia non grata.

Nikolskaya here quietly reminds us of another time: the plastic-fantastic era, when the material felt luxurious and was an economic game-changer. With the advent of plastic, everyone could afford to buy jewelry that shone as brightly as diamonds, pearls and gold. And precisely because it was so plastic, i.e. malleable, it was as if the distance between model and physical product shrank, as if the material world came closer to the Platonic heaven of ideas and ideals. Among many poorer populations, plastic probably still induces this feeling of luxury. Nikolskaya celebrates this fascination with plastic and neon, this "over-the-top" taste, without condescending irony as many others would. Nor is this long-time resident of the Middle East an orientalist. Rather, she does justice to these objects as folklore, and thereby also shows respect for their owners.

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In the second project – with the working title Adjacent Frame – Nikolskaya assumes the role of editor for the work of Vladimir Nikitin, the late Russian photographer who was once well-known and highly regarded in the Soviet Union and made a career both as a press photographer and a university lecturer. His widow and children were not interested in publishing any of the thousands of photos he left behind upon his death, and gladly turned his countless boxes over to Nikolskaya. She took the title Adjacent Frame from a term Nikitin coined to denote the kind of photography that could not be published during the Soviet regime – that which belonged to a parallel realm, next to the propagandistic social realism.

The selection adheres to the photographer's own wishes. He apparently had plans to one day publish a book and collected about fifty photos with negatives in an envelope on which he wrote 'The best', and the title Perekrjostki -- "crossroads." But the title Nikolskaya has chosen also reflects her presentation of the material. Each spread shows two or three black-and-white photographs taken at the same time, or at least in the same place, but with slight differences. In one picture, a whole family has assembled in front the house, in the other one, the youngest boy is seen running up to take his place there.

In the first picture in another of the series – The Friends – a pair of young women are seen embracing each other. One smiles happily at the camera, while the other, with a somewhat furtive look, makes something resembling an attempt to smile. In the next picture, they are no longer posing but conversing while doing house chores, and seem to have forgotten about the camera. In the last photo, the happy one is still happy, but the discontent of which we saw a hint in the face of the other girl is now fully visible as hurt feelings -- apparently over something the other has just said, but also seeming to reveal a deeper, long-term resentment for her friend.











































The Friends. (c) Vladimir Nikitin


This gives the photographs an added dimension. We see the situation and the people in greater depth; the pictures become stories. This is in contrast to so many books with old photos whose beauty and aura are as good as inherent in the black and white form – think of Jacques Henri Lartigue or even Dorothea Lange.

Precisely because of their lack of color, such classic photos can feel stylized and remote – inaccessible to the hand that flips through these books. The sense of liveliness in Nikolskaya's presentation is also enhanced by the facsimiles of the yellow envelopes in which the photos were kept, with Nikitin's titles and descriptions written in ink. All this gives the book an organic quality and a patina that the Cartier-Bresson‘s pictures do not have, old though they may be.

Like the book about her grandparents’ house, this project has an autobiographical dimension. Nikolskaya grew up as a typical Russian kid in a typical Russian family: Mama; no Papa; an only child. Her mother refused to tell her who her father was. She went so far as to give the daughter her own patronymic in order not to reveal even his first name. Nikolskaya says she had a happy childhood and never missed a father, but she was still curious about who he was. Finally, in her twenties, she figured it out on her own.

The mother was an avid amateur photographer, and among the many friends that could be seen in her albums, Nikolskaya knew basically everyone. But there was also a stranger who reappeared in the early photos, and then disappeared. When she asked, her mother admitted: yes, it's him. And the name she had withheld was Vladimir Nikitin.

If it had been difficult in view of censorship to publish some of these photos during the Soviet era, today there are other obstacles. Although Nikitin's widow gave his archive to Nikolskaya, the former is not particularly fond of her late husband's first offspring – probably due to a transferred jealousy towards Nikolskaya's mother. Thus she has not given her any kind of document giving Nikolskaya permission to reproduce the works, and of course there is no birth certificate proving that Nikolskaya is heiress to their author. It is also unclear to what extent copyright actually exists in Russian legislation. So it remains to be seen if a European or American publisher will be able to put out the book.


Once Nikolskaya learned her father's identity, her mother, somewhat reluctantly, resumed contact with him, and during the last twenty years of his life, father and daughter had a good relationship, although she describes him as more of a "drinking buddy" than a father figure. He never thought she would find success with the Dust project, though, which she began working on in 2006: “That stuff is Proust,” he said – “nobody's gonna get it.” Then he died suddenly, of a heart attack, in 2015. If Nikolskaya had had reason to believe the end was near, she would have asked him to write a will making her the executor of his estate. Because who could have taken better care of his Nachlass and made a book of his 'best', those testaments to the Soviet era and the life stories in the adjacent frame which stood in such contrast to the revolutionary idealism – who but the daughter who had not inherited his name, but certainly his photographic eye.

Ulrika Carlsson

May 2024

A video of the book release event for Dust with music by Nancy Mounier and a discussion between Nikolskaya and Rodrigo Brum.

A video where Nikolskaya speaks about The House My Grandfather Built, produced by the Swedish Photographic Society.

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