The award-winning Russian-Swedish photographer Xenia Nikolskaya talked about her book Dust: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture, Revised and Expanded Edition (AUC Press, 2022), with Rodrigo Gratacós Brum, filmmaker, film producer, and associate professor of practice at AUC’s Department of the Arts, in front of a packed audience in AUC Tahrir’s historic Ewart Hall, on February 23.
In her introductory remarks, Veerle De Laet, AUC Press executive director, said: “This book is an outstanding addition to our collection and definitely appeals to the specialist and general reader, in Egypt as well as abroad. The past is a foreign country, so the saying goes, and that describes exactly the feeling I get when I browse Xenia’s book and get absorbed by her images of empty, crumbling, and abandoned palaces and residencies. They intrigue, they fascinate, they make you wonder, maybe even imagine, how it must have been like once, with the people there who lived in these houses, what kind of lives they might have had. The passage of time becomes very visible and tangible in Xenia’s pictures. They display a peculiar and unique kind of beauty. It is the aesthetics of the temporary, of the illusive almost. As a historian by training, I can easily get lost in images like these and in the contemplation that they evoke. I sincerely hope that you too will get lost tonight.’
The evening then began with a stunning music performance by Cairo-based composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Nancy Mounir, accompanied by a slideshow of selected photographs featured in Dust. “Thank you, Nancy, for giving my work a new dimension,” said Nikolskaya at the onset of her discussion with Brum.
Nikolskaya talked about how she first got interested in photography, her relationship with her father, himself a very accomplished photographer, the work that went into the book, and her inspiration and vision as a photographer. “It was not my goal to make this book useful,” she said when asked later in the Q&A session whether Dust was a personal journey or a way to draw attention to Egypt’s urban decay.
In Dust, Nikolskaya documented abandoned palaces and lavish buildings, having gained exceptional access to them. She took photographs at some thirty locations, including in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Minya, Esna, and Port Said. The result is this 160-page hardcover book with 82 color photographs, a revised and expanded edition of an earlier printing, featuring new images and additional text.