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Banned Under Stalin, Avant-Garde Art Collection Now Distrusted In Modern Uzbekistan

"Uzbekistan in the 1930s," a photograph by Max Penson
"Uzbekistan in the 1930s," a photograph by Max Penson
NEW YORK -- When Igor Savitsky, a young Russian painter, came to Soviet Uzbekistan in 1931, he fell in love with the rugged beauty of the desert and decided to settle there.

Savitsky soon discovered a coterie of disfavored artists who did not fit in the officially sanctioned style of socialist realism. The remoteness of the place and the ignorance of the local communist authorities had given them an opportunity to paint without being noticed and punished.

During the following decades Savitsky managed to amass a collection of 40,000 works of Soviet avant-garde art, which has been housed since 1966 in the Nukus Museum Of Art on the fringes of western Uzbekistan.

Now officially known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum Of Art, the Nukus Museum has recently been stripped of one of its two buildings, its management has been subjected to a barrage of inspections, and the future of both the museum and the Savitsky collection, seems to hang precariously in the balance.

Filmmakers Amanda Pope (right) and Tchavdar Georgiev on location in Uzbekistan
At the same time a documentary film about the collection, called "The Desert Of Forbidden Art," has earned glowing reviews in the United States. The collection itself has been recognized as a treasure of Soviet avant-garde art, with some estimates of its worth in the several millions of dollars.

The filmmakers, Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, say they are trying to raise awareness about the Savitsky collection, which they fear may be quietly sold in pieces to private collectors or suffer damage due to negligence by the Uzbek authorities.

Government Pressure

The relentless wave of official inspections, Pope says, has taken a toll on 55-year-old Marinika Babanazarova, who has been running the museum since Savitsky's death in 1984.

"It's one of the best-run museums in Uzbekistan. They have not been able to uncover anything that's wrong," Pope says. "And so one commission comes, they can't find anything, they go back to Tashkent. A few weeks later another one comes -- there have been 15 of these inspections within the last year."

Neither the Uzbekistan Ministry of Cultural and Sports Affairs nor the Consulate-General in New York responded to RFE/RL requests for comment. RFE/RL was unable to reach Babanazarova in Nukus despite repeated attempts.

In November, the local Uzbek authorities suddenly ordered the Nukus Museum to vacate one of its two exhibition buildings. The staff was forced to empty the building in 48 hours and hurriedly stack the fragile works of art in the other building. Now, more than 2,000 pieces of the Savitsky collection are no longer exhibited.

Filmmaker Georgiev says that a possible explanation for the assault on the museum may be President Islam Karimov's drive to promote Uzbek national identity and suppress elements that don't support his vision.

"Head" by Lyubov Popova (courtesy of Savitsky collection)
"The Nukus Museum houses a lot of works of art that are part of the heritage, an important part, but a lot of them are made by Russian artists and they do not quite fit into the new national narrative of the country," Georgiev says.

...Or Official Pride?

David Pearce, a former World Bank official who is now the chairman of the small, nonprofit Friends of Nukus Museum, also says that the Russian core of the Savitsky collection may be making bureaucrats in Tashkent uneasy as a reminder of the former colonial power's cultural influence.

But Pearce rejects the assumption that the forced closure of one of the museum's buildings is a sign that the Uzbek government is cracking down on it.

"The notion that the problem with the museum's old building, which is currently closed, is somehow evidence of an official crackdown on the museum or the collection -- I mean, that's just not correct," Pearce says. "I am not myself an apologist for the Uzbek government, but on the other hand, if you are going to be critical of the Uzbek government, we need to be clear about the facts."

Pearce says that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry commissioned its own documentary about the collection and called it "Uzbekistan's Pearl." The film is shown in Uzbek diplomatic missions around the world in a bid to attract tourists. The museum continues to operate and foreign visitors are welcome, but required to pay an entrance fee four times as expensive as what Uzbek citizens are charged.

Too Outspoken For Uzbekistan

In October, museum director Babanazarova was prevented from traveling to the United States for the screening of "The Desert Of Forbidden Art" at the National Art Gallery in Washington.

Marinika Babanazarova
The trip was months in the making, Pope says. Babanazarova had already secured a U.S. visa when, two weeks before the trip, she received a letter from the Culture Ministry informing her that her exit visa had been canceled.

"She was going to do a talk at the Textile Museum [in Washington], she was also going to visit several other museums in the country," Pope says, "but the key event was to come to the National Gallery of Art to have the film shown and have the collection honored in that way."

Pearce, of the Friends of the Nukus Museum, says that Babanazarova's outspokenness and extensive contacts with foreigners may not sit well within Uzbekistan's autocratic society, where decisions always come from the top down.

"She is quite an independent person and she expresses her opinions on issues related to the museum fairly openly and frankly," Pearce says. "And given the sort of bureaucratic culture in Uzbekistan, that probably doesn't generate many friends."

Georgiev says no explanation has been given for Babanazarova's visa cancellation and that in a brief telephone conversation with a ministry official she had been "advised" to tell the filmmakers that she was sick. She refused, he says.

Preserving The Collection Whole

Babanazarova was permitted in December to travel to the Netherlands, where three paintings from the Savitsky collection are now on display.

Igor Savitsky in the 1930s
Russian and Western art collectors are showing keen interest in acquiring works from the Savitsky collection but so far Babanazarova has adamantly resisted the idea. The filmmakers say that she fears that if there is a precedent for selling the paintings, powerful figures within the government may put pressure on her to sell more works for the state's cash-strapped treasury, or for their personal benefit.

John Bowlt, who is the director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture at the University of Southern California, says that for the collection to be preserved, it needs to be properly catalogued and exhibited internationally.

"A major comprehensive international traveling exhibition, a major catalogue, lots of press coverage and grand opening and so forth -- that would help a lot to preserve the collection," Bowlt says. "Because that will make the world much more aware of the uniqueness of the collection."

Bowlt says once the collection is properly catalogued to international standards, it would be much more difficult for corrupt officials to get their hands on it because each piece will be documented and accounted for.

Uzbekistan's Heritage

The irony of the situation, the filmmakers say, is that a lot of the Russian artists displayed in the Savitsky collection were born in Uzbekistan or adopted Uzbekistan as their home.

The filmmakers hope that their documentary will contribute to a change of attitude in Tashkent so the authorities recognize that even if these artists were not ethnic Uzbeks, they are a part of the national heritage -- something the country should be proud of.

"Our intention is really to bring the plight of the museum to the public attention and really appeal to the Uzbek government to step forward and indicate some support," Pope says.

Pearce, of the Friends of the Nukus Museum, says that when Babanazarova decides to step down, it will be hard to find someone with similar vision and dedication to replace her.

Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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