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Controversy erupts as Uzbek art museum director unceremoniously fired


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We’ve received the unfortunate news that Marinika Babanazarova, director of Uzbekistan’s Savitsky Karakalpakstan art museum, has been unceremoniously fired. Uzbek authorities have accused her of stealing artifacts from the museum, though these charges have been largely decried as false by members of the Karakalpakstan art community. Robert Chandler reports the story for the Guardian, below.

For continuing updates, visit the Savitsky museum’s Facebook page.

One of the world’s greatest collections of Russian avant-garde art is housed in an unlikely place: the remote city of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan – a depressed and desolate region of north-west Uzbekistan.

The Savitsky Karakalpakstan art museum holds about 90,000 artworks, paintings from the 1920s and 1930s along with archaeological finds and examples of Karakalpak folk art. Since the death of its founder Igor Savitsky in 1984, it has been run by a particularly dedicated director, Marinika Babanazarova.

But now that director has been fired after apparently being accused of stealing its treasures – charges that supporters say have been fabricated by Uzbek authorities angered at the way the museum had attracted attention to the Karakalpakstan region.

“Marinika Babanazarova was scrupulous about security,” said Sue Richardson, co-author with her husband, David, of a recent book on Karakalpak folk culture, who has visited the museum many times.

“We witnessed the high level of security for all of the museum collection. Guards checked the contents of our bags, we were never left alone with the artefacts, and the curators put a fresh wax seal over the lock each evening.”

Richardson said there were now fears that the Savitsky collection would be relocated to the Uzbek capital Tashkent, allegedly for its own safety. “Some of it may go to museums but we suspect a lot more will quietly ‘disappear’,” she added.

The history of the Savitsky museum is itself legendary. After making three visits to the region in the 1950s as an artist accompanying an archaeological expedition, Igor Savitsky left his flat in a fashionable district of Moscow and settled in Nukus. There he obtained permission to set up a museum of Karakalpak popular art: jewellery, carpets, musical instruments, yurt furnishings and camel trappings.

Sometimes he found bits of precious carpet being used to block sluices in irrigation canals. Later he began to collect the work of 20th century Uzbek artists and of Russian artists who had settled in Central Asia, and in 1966 he established the fine arts museum.

Most remarkably of all, he went regularly to Moscow and Leningrad, visiting the heirs of avant-garde artists from the 1920s and 30s and acquiring a huge collection of still-banned work. He would travel back to Nukus – a three day train journey – with enough paintings to fill two or three compartments.

Only because Nukus was so far from the centres of power was he able to do this. Many works were donated to the museum, but his purchases were funded by the Karakalpak and Uzbek governments, which had little understanding of what he was doing with their money.

The museum’s collection includes artists such as Lyubov Popova and Robert Falk, whose reputation is international, and some perhaps equally great artists who are still barely known outside Nukus since little of their work survives outside the Savitsky.

The museum’s staff have shown their support for Babanazarova after her dismissal, signing a joint letter calling for their director to be reinstated.