DUST 2006-12

We entered by the back door, into complete darkness. My heart was beating loudly, I felt scared, but when the caretaker switched on the light I saw a magical place – totally untouched and covered with a soft layer of dust – a wonderful marble-paved hall dating back to the early 20th century. Here was Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Yet it looked as if it was still occupied, as if the owners had only just left. Beneath a glass ceiling, books and photographs lay scattered around. On one side was the library and a salon and on the other the dining room. A pink marble staircase, led up to a galleried balcony and to the bedrooms: at its base stood two griffins. Marble, silk, polished wood, crystal, mirrors and paintings – the place seemed transformed into a theatre in which a drama had just been acted out – a very private drama – one that fills you with curiosity and guilt, rather like reading someone’s personal letters.

It now seems appropriate that my photographic exploration of empty space in Egypt should have started when I stepped into this building, the Serageldin mansion in Cairo. Since then, I have entered many abandoned places, halls of decay and vanishing beauty. Initially, I was looking in these places for traces of the St. Petersburg of my early adulthood. Gradually, however, I found myself drawn by their own stories.

I was born in the Soviet Union (a name which, like that of my hometown Leningrad, no longer exists), and studied Ancient Egyptian Art on cracked black & white slides with a teacher who had never been to Egypt. The first time I came, in 2003, was as a part of an archaeological mission to Memphis run by The Russian Egyptology Institute. That first trip was overwhelming. I was too busy photographing artifacts and excavations to see much of

the country, but nevertheless I felt a connection. I returned again, this time on my own, in 2006, with the help of the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow. It was an adventure and as Roland Barthes has written – “there is no photography without adventure”.

After returning to Russia, the Director of the Egyptian Cultural Centre in Moscow was keen to exhibit my work, but at his office, looking through my pictures, he seemed to become more and more upset. Finally he asked: “Where are the Pyramids?” I told him that I hadn’t found them very interesting, and consequently hadn’t photographed them. That was the end of the meeting.

He never called me back.

I have been photographing in Egypt for the last five years, but only when I left the country could I formulate my vision for the project. It was during a trip to the USA, in 2009. In New York, I met photographer Jason Eskenazi, who was working temporarily as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum. Jason took me there on a Monday, when the museum is closed to visitors. The deserted building projected me back to childhood and evening school visits to the Hermitage Museum. That day also revealed something to me that I had seen before but felt I was encounter- ing for the first time: The Milkmaid, the famous painting by Jan Vermeer was on display. During visiting hours it was simply impossible to even get close to it. In the picture she is alone (and in a closed museum even more so), but she doesn’t appear sad. In the background, on a fine ceramic tile, we can see Cupid shooting his arrow. The story is complete: she is thinking of her lover. At that moment I realised my theme: absence. It was what I had been thinking about all along.

... And so when I finally stepped out of the Serageldin mansion in to the present darkness time begin again. Only later did I discover the stories beneath the dust...

This work took five years. Strangely, the last pictures were taken just before the Egyptian revolution of January 17 and the final selection was completed on February 11 – the day Mubarak stood down.

Xenia Nikolskaya, Cairo 2011