For many people, going to art museums is something they do on their travels but don’t really enjoy. They tell themselves they enjoy it because it seems like the thing to do. In reality the same portraits and landscapes that exist the world over usually fail to inspire, and the memories on the encounter fade quicker than a cheap tie-dye t-shirt in the hot Saharan sun.
What if I told you there’s an art museum that ticks all the important travel boxes? Something rarer than a bar in Mecca – adventure, experience, educating, enthralling and a life-long memory? Grandly located in the centre of the Uzbekistani city of Nukus sits the State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I.V. Savitsky, otherwise known as the Nukus Art Museum or simply Savitsky Museum.
The story of this place is an interesting one. Founded in 1966 by Igor Savitsky, during the Soviet Union, the displays were mundane and pedestrian. There was state approved art and local archaeological finds. The usual pieces of broken pottery and metal utensils. However, while masquerading as an every day run of the mill curator of a state museum in the then Uzbek SSR, Savitsky secretly acquired the world’s largest collection of Avant-Garde art in the world! Pieces of art that were both officially banned and socially unacceptable (not officially banned but might as well have been).
During the early days of the Soviet Union, artists were encouraged to experiment and break with tradition, however with the coming of Stalin and then throughout the Brezhnev years, official Soviet realist artwork was really the only acceptable style. Savitsky secretly acquired the earlier artworks as well as encouraging local Central Asian artists by purchasing their work.
All of this acquired, was then held in the vast storage rooms at the museum and only were finally able to be put on public display in 1985 with the advent of perestroika and the liberalising of the Soviet Union. Even at the Independence of Uzbekistan in 1991 the full state of the collection and its importance hadn’t been totally realised.
Walking around this huge complex in Nukus you can get a feel for why the Soviet authorities disliked this artwork. It contains nudity and drunkenness; it shows sadness, pain and sorrow. It shows rich party officials partying as well as traditional nomadic scenes; worst of all it shows religion, Orthodox churches and Islamic dress. Not only is the artwork thought provoking and historically significant, it’s also really good, genuinely great pieces of art.
Many of the artists whose work is exhibited at the Nukus Museum of Art were purged by Josef Stalin. Nikolaev was arrested for his sexuality, Kurzin was imprisoned and exiled for anti-Soviet propaganda, and Solokov was interred in a labour camp. Lysenko was arrested and confined to a mental asylum for much of his life because of his art. Their work was supposed to be destroyed, but Savitsky recognised its artistic and political importance and ensured that it was saved.
Now I also promised adventure, and although a fantastic experience and highly rewarding, you wouldn’t usually refer to going to an art museum as an adventure. The adventure is getting to where the Museum is. The journey itself. Possibly one of the most isolated corners of the globe, Nukus is literally in the middle of nowhere, making getting there half the fun. Uzbekistan has done a very good job over the years making themselves readily accessible to tourists, however Nukus is still the type of place where locals double take when they see foreigners walking down the street. During our adventures to Nukus I’ve still never seen another tourist.
Whether you catch the long slow rattling train, drive across the vast unending desert, or something even more crazy like cycling, the trip to Nukus is an adventure in itself. Leaving the tourist trail behind and seeing a side of Uzbekistan very few do. Nukus also happens to be the capital of Karakalpakstan , the autonomous republic which is the only part of Uzbekistan without an Uzbek majority. They speak their own language, and have different customs and cuisine. Nukus also happens to be the launching point for the Aral Sea , another phenomenal experience like no other.
Entry to the museum: 70,000 UZS per person (roughly US$6.50)
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 9:00-18:00
Saturday, Sunday 10:00-18:00
Photos: Although you’ll need to pay for a permit for cameras, every time we’ve been there they’ve been happy for us to take pictures on our phones without incurring any fee.
If this seems like something that you need to see, come along with us to Uzbekistan!