Savitsky Museum: Central Asia’s Storage Room of Secrets

Savitsky Museum: Central Asia’s Storage Room of Secrets

MIR’s Private Journeys Specialist Lisa Peterson visited the Savitsky Art Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan, drawn to its history, art, and its tenacious director. For more on the museum itself, read about its fascinating history and visionary artist-founder, Igor Savitsky.

Traveling to Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan in northwestern Uzbekistan, what interested me most wasn’t so much what was on display inside the intriguing Savitsky Art Museum. The most exciting stuff was – so to speak – behind the curtain.

Storage room of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus (Karakalpakstan), Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Lisa Peterson.

Art experts pull a canvas out of the stacks in the storage room of the Savitsky Art Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan
Photo credit: Lisa Peterson

Every Picture Tells A Story It was the storage room at the Savitsky Art Museum that best told about the history and riches of this bold museum, and how it came to be.  After visiting so many mosques, mausoleums, and markets across Uzbekistan, stumbling upon an art museum in the middle of the desert — and its storage room no less – comes across as quite a surprise. It’s even more surprising that this storage room with its rarely seen works of art became the highlight of my visit to Uzbekistan.

Stacks of paintings at Savitsky Museum <br>Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

The Savitsky Art Museum storage room shelters an incredible number of works of art
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

In that storage room I had the chance to wander around, seeing priceless jewelry and viewing works of art up close. It was just crazy: the museum staffers would walk up to a shelf and pull out works of art for us to look at. Paintings were on shelves, or stacked up like books, or clipped to the walls, or in piles, or in boxes. These pieces of art were once banned by the Soviet government; the story behind how they got here, to Uzbekistan, is legendary.

Savitsky Museum. Nukus, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

A storage room curator is pleased to show off some of the hidden treasures at the Savitsky Art Museum 
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Desert ArtI’m so glad I did NOT see the movie, Desert of Forbidden Art  before I visited Nukus and the Savitsky Museum. (It’s an award-winning documentary that tells the story of how Igor Savitsky spirited away some 40,000 pieces of banned Soviet avant-garde art into the desert of Uzbekistan for safekeeping in his museum.)

Savitsky Museum. Nukus, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Museum director Marinika Babanazarov talks about restoration work at the museum
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Dedicated DirectorWhy am I glad I didn’t see it? Because I would have been so intimidated to talk and have a private lunch with the museum’s world-famous director, Marinika Babanazarov. I didn’t realize she’s a movie star, featured in the documentary! It seems everyone in the art world knows of her and her museum stewardship since Igor Savitsky died in 1984. And yet to me, she seemed a warm and approachable grandmotherly woman, piling my plate with Uzbek specialities. In between her comments on Russian art, she kept telling me to eat-eat-eat! Gee, I wish I’d asked for her autograph!

Savitsky Museum. Nukus, Uzbekistan Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

In her official role, Museum Director Marinika Babanazarov leads a tour of the Savitsky Art Museum
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Marinika Babanazarov conducted the tour of the museum with us, and had such an infectious passion for each piece in the museum collection. I just wish I could take a week tour of the Savitsky, with Marinika as my guide. It would be incredible! Actually, I was impressed by the passion of everyone who worked at the museum.


Priceless Treasures
Marinika is an amazing woman who has been safeguarding the priceless treasures of the Savitsky Museum for 30 years – they’re up to 90,000 pieces right now.  Museums and private art collectors around the world have offered her millions of dollars for paintings from the Savitsky. Selling just one once-banned Soviet painting would help pay for running the museum. But she won’t do it. It’s a slippery slope. “This is their resting place,” Marinika told me.

Walls of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan, are filled with once-banned Soviet art Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Striking Soviet art “rests” on the walls of the Savitsky Art Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan 
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Savitsky Museum. Nukus, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Lisa Peterson and Marinika Babanazarov discuss some of the remarkable pieces in the storage room  
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Protecting the Savitksy Museum and its legacy is Marinika Babanazarov’s life’s work.  And for me, it was an honor to simply be in her presence (as I am in this photo), in the presence of one so dedicated to saving these historic, forbidden artworks hidden in full view, in the desert.


Travel To Uzbekistan
You can see this artwork for yourself on MIR tours that visit Nukus, truly an artistic hot spot in the desert.  You can also create a custom private journey to this region and to this world-class museum. 

(Top photo credit: Lindsay Fincher – The desert repository of the Savitsky Art Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan)

PUBLISHED: January 6, 2014

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