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Discovery Central Asia #29

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Text by David Pearce

One of the most remarkable cultural treasures that came to light following the démise of Soviet Union in 1991 was the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, named after I.V. Savitsky - more commonly known as the Savitsky Museum of Art or simply the Nukus Museum.  Nukus, often better known as the town nearest to what remains of the dying Aral Sea, is the capital of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in northwestern Uzbekistan; and, while still seemingly remote from the rest of the country, it is only a 90-minute flight from Tashkent and a 3-hour drive from the celebrated city of Khiva.   Opened in 1966, the Museum houses a collection of over 82,000 items of decorative, applied and visual arts, ranging from antiquities from the ancient civilization of Khorezm to Karakalpak applied arts, Uzbek fine art and, uniquely, the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg).  This magnificent collection represent literally the life's work of Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky, whose legacy, including thousands of artistic and cultural items on permanent exhibition, make the Nukus Museum one of the most interesting repositories of ancient and modern art.

The Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor V. Savitsky, born in 1915 in Kiev, first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950 to participate in the Khorezm Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition, underway since the 1930s and led by Sergei Tolstov.  After several years working as the archaeological team's artist, Savitsky fell in love with the land, art and people of Karakalpakia and subsequently moved to Nukus. He continued living there until his death in Moscow in 1984.  During 1957-66, he assembled an extensive collection of Karakalpak jewellery, carpets, coins, clothing and other artifacts, convinced the local authorities of the need for a museum, and, following its establishment (initially in a converted chemical factory), was appointed its curator in 1966.  Thereafter, he began collecting the works of Central Asian artists, including those of Volkov, Tansykbaev and Ufimtsev of the Uzbek school, and later those of the Russian avant-garde-including Redko, Popova, Mukhina, Koudriachov and Falk-whose paintings, although already recognized in Western Europe (especially in France), had been banned in the Soviet Union during Stalin's rule and through the 1960s.

Despite the risk of being denounced as an “enemy of the people”, Savitsky sought out proscribed painters and their heirs to collect, archive and display their works; and, with great courage, he managed to assemble thousands of Russian avant-garde and post-avant-garde paintings. Refuting the Socialist Realism school, the collection shook the foundations of that period of art history.  It was not until perestroika in 1985 the year after he diedthat Savitsky's remarkable achievement and collections were truly acknowledged; and it was not until 1991 when Uzbekistan became independent - that  Nukus, a remote 'closed' city during the Soviet period, became accessible to the outside world.  

Since then, exhibitions from the Russian and Uzbek avant-garde collection have been staged in France (Caen, 1998), Uzbekistan (Tashkent, 2001, 2002 and 2003) and Russia (planned for 2008-09) have brought Savitsky's bequest to the attention of a wider international audience.  No less important, the Museum now acknowledged as a unique center for the study of Russian art in the 1920s and 1930s - is attracting increasing numbers of art lovers, connoisseurs, and scholars and students specializing in this period.  They have confirmed that the Savitsky collection sheds new light on the history of Russian art during the Soviet period, providing additional insight into the art life of that era. 

Today, the number of the Museum's admirers and supporters in Uzbekistan and around the world, although still relatively few, is gradually increasing.  What the NY Times has referred to as “a vast and intriguing collection of Russian art that only now is coming to the attention of the West” has now become a “must-see” for any cultural visitor to Uzbekistan - and has added Nukus to the conventional tourist itinerary and traditional cultural sites of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  Following its move to a new building in 2003, the Nukus Museum is now one of the finest in Uzbekistan - and in all of Central Asia.

Ms. Marinika Babanazarova, Savitsky's successor as the Museum's curator since 1984, has been involved in presenting more than 20 exhibitions - in France, Germany, Russia, and the United States as well as in Uzbekistan.  Her essays have featured in five exhibition catalogues, including the best selling Avangard, ostanovlennyi na begu (Avant-Garde Stopped on the Run) and Histoire d'une Passion (History of a Passion).  She is currently completing a biography of Savitsky that is planned for publication during 2009, marking the 25th anniversary of Savitsky's death and her own directorship of the Museum.  She may be contacted through the Museum's email address:



Set up initially in Tashkent as an informal group during the early 1990s and later registered in Karakalpakstan as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in 2001, the Friends of Nukus Museum (FoNM) is a small, but dedicated international network of advocates and supporters.  In 2007, it was re-constituted as the Friends of Nukus Museum Foundation, based in the Netherlands.  FoNM aims to promote increased public awareness through a members' Quarterly Newsletter, the Museum's website (, dissemination of information to the print and visual media, and support for exhibitions from the Museum's collections in galleries and museums in Uzbekistan and abroad. It also seeks to mobilize financial and material support for the Museum's research, restoration and community outreach activities through charitable events, specific projects and other fundraising initiatives around the world.  Individuals and institutions interested in supporting the museum, becoming a FoNM member, or obtaining more information, may contact its chairman, David Pearce by email at

Discovery Central Asia #24

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