Nukus, Uzbekistan – This seems like the least likely place for an art collection.
This city of 230,000 lies in the middle of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history – the desiccation of the Aral Sea – victim of Soviet-era efforts to boost cotton production in arid Central Asia.
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous region in western Uzbekistan, where the rates of tuberculosis, anaemia, infant mortality and cancer are among the world’s highest, and where the landscape is often engulfed in toxic salt-dust storms that rise from the Aral’s exposed bottom.
And yet, a colossal, mind-boggling collection of tens-of-thousands masterpieces of Russian avant-garde art – once banned, saved from oblivion by a Quixotic artist and propelled to international fame by a woman who majored in English – has been amassed and preserved here to redefine art history.
Muscovite artist Igor Savitsky came to Central Asia in 1950 as part of an archaeological expedition to sketch the ruins of an ancient civilisation in the lower reaches of the Amudarya, one of the two rivers feeding the Aral Sea.
Like many Russian artists, Savitsky was mesmerised by the predominantly Muslim region stretching from China to the Caspian Sea that was conquered by czarist armies in the late 19th century.
He also became fascinated by the culture of Karakalpaks, a small Turkic nation of nomads, farmers, and fishermen.
In 1966, Savitsky became the director of the Nukus art museum – and, for several years, its only employee. He renovated the museum’s building on his own dime, excavated medieval mounds, and roamed Karakalpak villages purchasing thousands of exhibits and giving away promissory notes.
“He fell in love with Karakalpakstan,” said Marinika Babanazarova, the museum’s current director, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin decided to divert the waters flowing into the Aral Sea to irrigate reclaimed steppe and desert.
An institute for development of chemical weapons was secretly moved to Karakalpakstan, with one of the Aral Sea islands turned into its testing ground.
Karakalpakstan became completely closed to foreigners, but Savitsky only widened his hunting circles, coming across masterpieces of an absolutely different – unsanctioned – kind.
In the 1910s, Russian avant-garde art was a vortex of trailblazing movements that considered Picasso obsolete, and were first to develop abstractionism and helped shape last century’s artistic canon.
After the 1917 revolution, the communists longing to uproot “bourgeois” traditions supported the competing diversity of iconoclastic artists.
But by the early 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the propagation of Communist Party-approved socialist realism in the arts.
Many artists were arrested, jailed, or executed, some were sent to mental institutions, and a few found safety on the fringes of the Soviet Union.
Savitsky began to look for lost canvases in Uzbek and Russian cities, where widows and families of banned artists kept their works hidden in basements or attics – or were about to throw them away.
“He brought back full railroad wagons,” Valentina Sycheva, the museum’s chief curator, told Al Jazeera as she showed giant shelves in the museum’s storage, where thousands of canvases stand side by side.
The museum was hardly fit for the mushrooming collection – it was cooped up in a modest, one-storey building with no air conditioning and only a tiny fraction of the collection on exhibit, while tens-of-thousands of artworks were piled up in the basement.
Savitsky discovered first-class works by contemporaries of avant-garde apostles such as Kazimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall – but many were little known or totally unfamiliar to art historians.
“Without him, they would have been gone without a trace,” Babanazarova said.
One was Vladimir Lysenko, whose canvas with an ethereal, blue bull became the museum’s mascot.
The artist was arrested in the early 1930s, and later, possibly, confined to forced psychiatric treatment. The date of his death is unknown, and only five of his works survived – all in horrible condition that took years to restore.
Many other works still need restoration.
“There’s plenty of work that will be done after we’re gone,” said artist Alvina Spady, who has spent more than four decades restoring hundreds of the museum’s canvases.
“These days, he is an authority figure, genius, but at the time they saw him as a weirdo, an absolute nutcase,” Babanazarova said.
However, in the early 1980s, part of the collection was exhibited in Moscow, and the Soviet Culture Ministry decided to allocate 360,000 roubles – about $500,000 – to pay for Savitsky’s promissory notes.
Savitsky died in Moscow in 1983 of lung cancer – and handpicked Babanazarova as his successor.
A former English literature major and the daughter of a renowned Karakalpak scholar and official, she had worked at the museum as a curator – and first thought she was not fit to take her revered boss’ place.
“I was very scared,” Babanazarova, 59, a stately matron with short, wavy hair said sitting opposite Savitsky’s portrait in her office.
“The most terrifying part was the feeling of responsibility that fell on me.”
It was her turn to preserve the collection, keep it from being transferred to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, or Moscow – and to promote it internationally.
She learned on the go how to deal with foreign art critics, potential sponsors and media who had trouble locating Karakalpakstan – let alone pronouncing the word.
“The knowledge of English helped me as I started travelling,” she said. “But wherever I spoke about the museum, they looked at me like I was crazy.”
One of the first dignitaries to visit the museum in 1990 was Al Gore, then a US senator, who arrived to examine the consequences of Aral’s desiccation for his book on the environment.
Several years later, after a New York Times story on the museum, 85 US art critics landed in Nukus to be astounded by the collection and to spread the word about its creator and current keeper.
“It’s an extraordinary collection because it really does tell the story of the twilight zone of the Russian avant-garde,” John E Bowlt, director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told the New York Times.
“It’s a kind of diary, and a very sad one.”
With foreigners came foreign aid, but most of it went to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in the Aral Sea area. Still, the museum was not forsaken.
In 2003, it moved to a spacious three-storey compound built by the Uzbek government and equipped by international aid groups and philanthropists. Two more buildings are under construction nearby to exhibit another portion of the collection and store the rest of it.
The museum now employs almost 100 staffers, and the 80-year-old restorer Spady teaches several young artists how to revive damaged masterpieces.
An award-winning documentary on the museum, titled The Desert of Forbidden Art and narrated by Ben Kingsley, was released in 2010, and another one will be ready by September, when the museum celebrates Savitsky’s centennial.
To Karakalpakstan, the museum became what the pyramids are for Egypt – a growing source of foreign tourists who come to see the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara – and take a detour to marvel at Savitsky’s collection.
“He always said people would come from Paris to see it,” Babanazarova said. “And now the French are our number one visitors.”