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

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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)
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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
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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.”


Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries. (Arab News)
Updated 20 March 2019
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Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

DUBAI: Art Dubai, the largest art fair in the Middle East, got off to a colorful start on Wednesday and more than 92 galleries showcased their chosen artists in the city’s Madinat Jumeriah.

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries, as well as a bevy of galleries from the UAE.  There are also a number of events going on around the city, as part of Art Week, including Art Nights at the Dubai International Financial Center, which took place on Tuesday. 

You can read more about Art Nights, and see the wild and wonderful art on show, here

Highlights include new gallery section Bawwaba, showcasing art from the Global South; UAE NOW - the first section of its kind - spotlighting local independent artist-run platforms and subcultures, their place in the UAE’s evolving landscape and contribution to creating new ways of thinking, theory and artistic movements and the Contemporary section — two gallery halls presenting work from 59 galleries from 34 countries by some of the most notable contemporary artists working today. It will make you smile, smirk and everything  in-between.

Art Dubai 2019 welcomes more than 500 artists representing 80 nationalities across its four gallery sections: Art Dubai Contemporary, Art Dubai Modern, Bawwaba and Residents.

We take a look at six of our favorite artists and pieces here.

The diversity on show is notable, with galleries from Latin America placed next to booths from Beirut, Saudi Arabia and London.

Pablo del Val, Artistic Director of Art Dubai, said: “Art Dubai continues to develop original content to redefine what an art fair can be and contribute to the UAE and wider region’s cultural landscape. We represent an art world that is truly global and inclusive, rooted in artistic discovery and the promotion of new and alternative perspectives, community building, idea generation and cultural exchange. Geographies, galleries and artists, art typologies and thematics that are not often seen side-by-side, or even as part of the same conversation, will converge at the fair. We hope that new discoveries will be made and new synergies formed.”

It’s a melting pot of artistic expression and media, with sculptures, canvases and the odd video installation vying for space in the crowded halls.

There is a distinct focus on contemporary art, so if you’re into museum-worthy paintings, this may not be your cup of tea, but if you are willing to experiment, it’s the perfect spot to question the boundaries of art.

Battery-operated imaginary animals careened across the floor in one booth, while a fine spider’s web of black string formed an origami-like sculpture in another — anything goes at Art Dubai, as long as it’s not too risqué.

But, why tell you when we can show you? Scroll through the photo gallery to find out more about the art on show here.