Over a year before I left on my trip through the former Soviet Union, my brother sent me a link to a website about a movie – a documentary called the Desert of Forbidden Art. I never did get around to watching it, but it peaked my interest in an art museum in the town of Nukus in the region of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan.
Here’s the story:
During the Soviet rule artists who stay true to their vision are executed, sent to mental hospitals or Gulags. Their plight inspires young Igor Savitsky. He pretends to buy state-approved art but instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist’s works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. Savitsky amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art. But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They develop a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.
Somehow I ended up in Nukus toward the end of my time in Uzbekistan. I planned to take the train to Kazakhstan and Nukus was my jumping-off point. So of course, visiting the museum (officially known as the Karakalpak Museum of Arts: Savitsky Collection) became my single must-do activity while I was in town.
After paying a reasonable entry fee and a fairly hefty extra photography fee, I headed up to the second floor. The building had a surprisingly clean and modern feel to it and the collection was well organized and labeled in Russian and English. I enjoyed the variety, much as I did when I visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow – Russian art has such a different feel to it than other European art and Uzbek art (specifically, Karakalpak art), even more so. Painters in Karakalpakstan drew inspiration from their desert surroundings, the nearby Aral Sea and from the traditional folk art of the region.
Here is a small sample of what I saw: