Pride and fears for Uzbekistan’s ‘Louvre of the Steppes’

1 / 2
More than 50 years after its founding, the Nukus Museum of Art in Uzbekistan's remote Karakalpakstan region still startles and charms visitors in the spirit of its eccentric late founder. (AFP)
2 / 2
Tourists visit the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art named after Igor Savitsky - also known as the Nukus Museum, in the city of Nukus, Uzbekistan, on September 16, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 05 November 2018
0

Pride and fears for Uzbekistan’s ‘Louvre of the Steppes’

  • Nukus is never likely to see more than a trickle of visitors, despite the state investing up to $20 million in a museum expansion completed in 2017

NUKUS, Uzbekistan: More than 50 years after its founding, the Nukus Museum of Art in Uzbekistan’s remote Karakalpakstan region still startles and charms visitors in the spirit of its eccentric late founder.
But having survived Soviet censorship and predatory foreign art dealers in the 1990s, some fear the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, faces a fresh threat.
The Friends of Nukus Museum, a Dutch-registered charity that has provided thousands of dollars in support to the museum annually since 2001 is expected to disband at the end of this year.
The main reason, its chairman David Pearce told AFP, is an impasse over gifts donated to the museum including books and audio equipment more than three years ago that have disappeared.
“As far as we are concerned they have been confiscated or stolen,” said Pearce, whose charity also serves as an important voice for the museum abroad.
The museum’s new administration refused a request from AFP for an interview about the charity’s claims.

Doubts about the museum’s new leadership have increased concerns for the state-run museum’s remarkable collection.
Its unique trove of Russian avant-garde art from the first half of last century was assembled during the Soviet era at considerable personal risk by the collector Igor Savitsky.
The Savitsky collection captures a flowering movement later crushed by the Bolsheviks.
It may be housed in the remote town of Nukus — population 300,000 — but only the State Russian museum in Saint Petersburg has a larger collection of this kind of art, which was essentially forbidden under communism.
Concern for the collection was first sparked by the sacking in 2015 of the museum’s director, Maranika Babanazarova, who had worked closely with The Friends of Nukus Museum.
Babanazarova was widely regarded as a scrupulous gatekeeper of the approximately 90,000 items at the museum which, as well as the avant-garde works, span Uzbek folk art and millennia-old archaeological artefacts.
The end of her stewardship also severed an important link back to Savitsky, who had begged her to take over his position as director of the museum on his deathbed in 1984.
Today, few museum staff remember the man himself, but there are still some exceptions.
Valentina Sychyova, the museum’s 71-year-old chief curator, first encountered Savitsky roaming the corridors of its original building in 1971.
“He was wearing ripped trousers and a crumpled, clay-specked shirt,” she recalled. “I assumed he was a maintenance worker or a builder.”
Russian-born Sychyova was simply visiting relatives in the then-Soviet republic. But after an enthralling conversation, she ended up working for him, she told AFP.

Savitsky’s collecting habit repeatedly took him to Russia and back.
His efforts would one day see the Nukus museum hailed as a “Louvre of the Steppes” by excited European art critics.
But in an era when state-sponsored socialist realism eclipsed all other forms of art, his was a dangerous undertaking.
Artists featured at the museum include little-known Russian painters such as Lev Galperin. He was among those artists whose work was repressed during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.
Others, like Ural Tansykbayev, a native of the Karakalpakstan region, became celebrated artists in the socialist realism style. They left their earlier, less propagandistic works to fester in cellars and attics.
Savitsky, usually short of cash, deferred payment to artists and their relatives for many of the works that he rescued. At the turn of the millennium, the museum still owed money for parts of the collection.
Some artists, however, donated their paintings, happy to have found an appreciative audience — and astounded that local authorities in the far-flung region were quietly supporting Savitsky rather than locking him up.
Nukus’ geographical distance from the centers of Soviet power afforded Savitsky and the state-owned museum he founded vital breathing space.
But Pearce and others have wondered aloud whether his legacy would now be better served if at least part of the avant-garde collection was rehoused in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, or even Europe.
Last year the museum whetted art world appetites outside the country when it sent over 200 works as temporary exhibits to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Nukus is never likely to see more than a trickle of visitors, despite the state investing up to $20 million in a museum expansion completed in 2017.
But ex-director Babanazarova is among those who would find it hard to see the precious works ripped away from the town permanently.
It was Savitsky’s love for this adopted region and efforts to support Karakalpak cultural heritage that persuaded the influential local officials he befriended — including her academic father — to indulge his vision.
During the economic chaos of the 1990s, her team fended off shady Western art dealers who arrived cash-in-hand promising untold riches.
Rapacious Uzbek officials also heaped pressure on the collective, but Savitsky’s disciples refused to sell out his legacy, Babanazarova told AFP.
Choosing a favorite from the collection is hard for her.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘If the museum was burning down and you could only save a painting, which one would that be?’” she said.
“I always tell them I would sooner stand in the halls and burn with them.”


Omanis praise compatriot for 'historic' Man Booker literature prize

Updated 22 May 2019
0

Omanis praise compatriot for 'historic' Man Booker literature prize

MUSCAT: Omanis on Wednesday hailed writer Jokha Alharthi’s “historical achievement” and praised her for bringing “honor” to their Gulf nation after she became the first Arab author to win the Man Booker International prize.
“It is a huge historic achievement for the author, for Oman and for Arabic culture in general,” said Saif Al-Rahbi, an Omani poet, essayist and writer.
“It shows that Omani literature is moving along,” he told AFP.
Alharthi, 40, received the prestigious prize during a ceremony Tuesday in London for her novel “Celestial Bodies” which depicts life in her small Gulf nation.
The 50,000-pound (57,000 euro, $64,000) Man Booker International prize celebrates translated fiction from around the world and is divided equally between the author and the translator.
The judges said Celestial Bodies was “a richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.”
It tells the story of three sisters who witness the slow pace of development in Omani society during the 20th century.
“I am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture,” Alharthi told AFP after the ceremony at the Roundhouse in London.
“Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book — freedom and love,” she said.
The jury praised an “elegantly structured and taut” novel which “tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.”
The director general of Oman’s culture ministry, Said bin Sultan Al-Bussaidi, agreed.
The novel, he said, shows that Alharthi’s work “reflects maturity and has reached an international level.”
“It is an honor for each and every Omani man and woman... (and the prize) will help spread Omani literature across the world,” he added.
Alharthi is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children’s book and three novels in Arabic.
She studied classical Arabic poetry at Edinburgh University and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
In an interview with the BBC at the weekend, Alharthi said she had wanted for a “very long time to write a book about life in Oman (but) couldn’t when she was actually in Oman.”
“But when I went to Edinburgh, the first year was difficult for me, homesickness, cold, so I felt that I need to go back to warmth and feel something from home,” she said.
“Actually writing saved me.”
Her prize-winning novel — which the Guardian newspaper said offers “glimpses into a culture relatively little known in the west” — came out in 2010.
Alharthi said on Tuesday that the novel touches on the history of the slave trade in Oman, an absolute monarchy where Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970, has been pushing for reform.
For one expert of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature, it could be a game changer for novels emerging from the region.
“It has the potential to orient publishing away from the Arabic novel as answering the question ‘what can we learn about them?’ and toward the Arabic novel as a work of art,” said Marcia Lynx Qualey, editor of ArabLit Quarterly.
“The surge in translation of Arabic-language novels is already in progress, but I think this re-orients publishers somewhat,” she told AFP.
Qualey said there “is definitely a growing interest in works by Gulf authors.”
“In Kuwait, Oman, Saudi, and elsewhere there are authors writing on issues of class, domestic violence, slavery, racism, patriarchy, power, and other issues that are of global interest,” she added.
Celestial Bodies was translated by US academic Marilyn Booth, who teaches Arabic literature at Oxford University.
Jury chair Bettany Hughes said the novel showed “delicate artistry and disturbing aspects of our shared history.”