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The battle to preserve Uzbekistan’s greatest art collection is moving online

The battle to preserve Uzbekistan’s greatest art collection is moving online
"Gathering Cotton" (1931) by Alexander Volkov, the founder of Uzbek Avant Garde. The artwork is one of hundreds on display at the Nukus Museum

Claims of mismanagement have dogged the Nukus Museum for decades, as officials and art lovers fight between preserving Igor Savitsky's avant-garde art collection in the desert, or bringing its masterpieces to a wider audience. Now, a new project is putting tens of Savitsy's greatest works online — but the battle for the museum's future is far from over.

25 October 2021

In early 1950s, Russian-born Ukrainian Igor Vitalievich Savitsky was on an archeological dig close to the Aral Sea. There, he started to stumble across old artworks that had been squirreled away: “paintings rolled up under the beds of old widows, buried in the family trash, in the dark corners of artists’ studios, and sometimes, even patching a hold in the roof,” Savitsky wrote to his family. Many were treasures dating back to Russia’s 1930s avant-garde, when artists had rebelled against state-enforced socialist realism in the arts. But, by creating work that did not conform to government ideals, doomed many of their works to destruction. Savitsky soon “ended up with a collection that no one in the Soviet Union would dare exhibit.”

Savitsky ultimately stashed the work inside his own home — a ramshackle two-story house in the heart of Nukus, in northwest Uzbekistan — and opened it to art buffs from across the world until perestroika, the political movement to reform the Soviet party, took hold in the early 1980s. Today, those same paintings form the basis of the Karakalpak State Art Museum, a grand state museum that houses the 90,000 items from Savitsky’s collection.

Currently, it’s the physical museum — also known as the Nukus Museum — that draws thousands of visitors to this remote corner of Uzbekistan every year. But now the Friends of the Nukus Museum (FoNM) have started the arduous task restoring, digitising, and categorising Savitsky’s acquisitions, of which 900 are on display on a new website. The project, as well as a planned contemporary art biennial and a tour of paintings to the United States, has been designed to “attract contemporary artists from around the world” and add Nukus to a “universal cultural heritage”, according to Tigran Mkrtychev, the former head of Moscow’s Roerich Museum of Oriental Art, who was named the Savitsky’s new director in 2019. “The Nukus Museum has a big problem with [the] restoration of [its] works,” he says. “We want to attract experts from around the world so that they can help create a restoration school.”

More importantly for many, this digital access also effectively engineers an end to the prospect of relocating the Savitsky treasure trove to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent — a prospect which has long loomed over the institution. “The Russian museums can’t live with the idea that such a wonderful collection was taken out of Russia and to this provincial place in Uzbekistan — God knows where,” says Savitisky’s former confidante and the Nukus Museum’s first director, Marinika Babanazarova, in a 2011 documentary on the Savitsky, The Desert of Forbidden Art.

But discussions on relocation were never simply a sign of injured pride. The newest museum structure, built in 2003, still does not have enough room to put all of its works on display, and remains in almost consistent disrepair. When I visited the Karakalpak State Art Museum, the paintings spoke to me of the yearning of Uzbek and Soviet artists to learn from the Western world, emulating the likes of George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton and Max Ernst, while putting their own spin on photographic realism, surrealism, and dadaism. Yet the artworks were hung in random pairings, among disjointed galleries and with scarcely an alarm system in sight, let alone a security guard.

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The Nukus Museum has endured a significant amount of dissonance in recent years. The museum’s third new director in four years, Gulbahar Izentaeva, was ousted in summer 2019 in favour of Mkrtychev, who also worked as a fellow for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is now the fifth overseer of the Savitsky collection in just four years.

Prior to this rapid turnover, it was Babanazarova who headed “the Louvre of the Steppe” for more than 30 years. Then, in 2015, the Uzbekistani government accused her of involvement in the theft of five original paintings, worth around $225,000, and their replacement with fakes. She strenuously denies the claims. “The authorities were looking for reasons to get rid of me for years. They wanted their own people in the museum, not people loyal to Igor Savitsky and his mission,” Babanazarova said in an open letter to the Uzbek Art and Culture Development Foundation (ACDF). She claimed the story amounted to a smear campaign. “They were angry with me because I wouldn’t do what they wanted. There is no real evidence against me.”

Babanazarova had previously refused efforts to sell or distribute pieces in the Savitsky collection, especially after an article by The New York Times in 2011 had brought the museum under new media focus. “We had collectors coming from the West with their bags full of money, saying, ‘Why don’t you sell one or two paintings?’ [But] these artists found shelter in Nukus; selling them was not even thinkable to us,” she says in The Desert of Forbidden Art.

After Babanazarova departed, the museum loaned out 250 pieces to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow as part of a test run. Russian president Vladimir Putin visited, along with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

A pastoral scene by Uzbekstani artist Nikolay Karakhan. Currently on display at the Nukus Museum

A pastoral scene by Uzbekstani artist Nikolay Karakhan. Currently on display at the Nukus Museum

Now that trend seems set to continue. Mkrtychev announced that a US delegation is set to visit the Nukus Museum later in 2021, with the possibility of a Savitsky loan to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “We wanted to send a good portion of the Savitsky Collection on tour to “show all [its] magnificence… in Europe and the United States.

“If God gives the strength, all will be well and the Nukus Museum will move from the top 10 unknown museums that you must visit to the top 10 in the world that everyone knows,” he said in a statement.

It will still be a struggle to put the Nukus Museum on the global art map. At present, a visit to the museum is about a two-hour flight or a 17-hour overnight train ride from Tashkent. But Savitsky devotees believe that such a journey is a small price to pay, and that the museum’s remote location is a homage to the spirit of its founder.

For now, the near future of the Savitsky remains dependent on two balancing factors: its good karma with the Karakalpak regional authorities, and Uzbekistan President Mirziyoyev’s “open visa” programme

After all, during the heyday of Soviet censorship, Savitsky would routinely disguise thousands of priceless paintings as simple luggage before loading them on trains and trucks for “archeological expeditions” to Nukus, according to the documentary. Even after Stalin and his successors Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Alexei Kosygin softened, Savitsky regularly put himself on the line for his collection. When a Soviet delegation declared that one of Savitsky’s favourite pieces — “Fascism is Advancing” by Uzbek artist Vladimir Lysenko — was anti-Soviet and therefore “degenerate”, he hid it for mere hours before putting it on the wall again. “It was too great a work of art to hide,” he wrote at the time.

Savitsky, who had come from a wealthy family of lawyers, saw “works by artists who stayed true to their vision at a terrible cost,” says his friend, Alla Efunni. “He had one suit on the hanger for visits to his bosses; the rest was not important to him: where to live, what to eat, his health, women, money. He did not care at all, except to pay the people he was buying the art from.” Savitsky continued to collect money from the state for “archeological expeditions” and gave it to the hungry widows of artists such as Sergei Bogdanov, a Moscow-educated painter whose self-portraits in “oriental robes” dazzled Savitsky; Alexander Volkov, whose paintings of cotton picker showed despair as the crop ruined central Uzbekistan; and Lyudmila Bakulina, who depicted industrial landscapes.

Ultimately, the “expeditions” that paid — and covered up — for Savitsky’s collecting were responsible for his demise. To clean pieces to bring back to Moscow, Savitsky used formaldehyde, which eventually destroyed his lungs. Forced to take up residence inside a Moscow hospital, doctors nonetheless gave Savitsky permission to make day trips for art’s sake. In the last weeks of his life, Savitsky collected two more containers of paintings and graphics, bringing his total to 44,000. He died in Moscow in 1984 at the age of 69, leaving historians to reconstruct the narrative of the Nukus Museum from diaries and letters in the state archives and through declassified KGB files.

"City" (1919) by Nikolay Grigoriev. Currently on display at the Nukus Museum

"City" (1919) by Nikolay Grigoriev. Currently on display at the Nukus Museum

Activists hope that the creation of a digital open archive will provide a middle ground between two extremes: protecting Savitsky’s legacy and the museum’s unique location, while bringing the collection itself to a wider audience who will care for it. “When M.M. Babanazarova was fired, and a prosecutor checked on the alleged substitutions and theft of works… in the museum, the world media repeatedly expressed their fears for the future of the collection,” wrote the curators Boris Chukhovich and Svetlana Gorshenina. “It was concern for the preservation of the integrity of the museum collection that led to the establishment of the Alerte Héritage Observatory website which hosts the digital archive and the initiation of the Museum’s open public catalog project.

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For now, the immediate future of the Savitsky remains dependent on two balancing factors: its good karma with the Karakalpak regional authorities, which allows it to show work critical of the Soviet and Islamist eras; and Uzbek President Mirziyoyev’s “open visa” programme to promote Silk Road tourism, an initiative to bring foreign tourists to the area. By keeping the Savitisky Collection near the Silk Road city of Khiva and the Aral Sea, the Karakalpak government makes the Nukus Museum a destination in which visitors don’t just “exit through the gift shop”, but get a real sense of Uzbekistan away from its major metropolises, Babanazarova says.

Most of all, those who love the museum hope to keep alive its founder’s singular goal, best articulated by Savitsky himself: “I like to think of our museum as a keeper of the artists’ souls; their works the physical expression of a collective vision that could not be destroyed.”

The Nukus Museum has invited its constituents, both professionals and amateurs, to use — and contribute to — the public open catalog Alerte Héritage, by far the most complete collection of reproductions of the works of the Nukus Museum ever published.

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