Spring break draws to mind images of toned bodies, fruity drinks with pretty straws, and an endless escape of soft sand and blue water. I’ve never had this idealized spring break, and this year was certainly no exception.
Sitting in an old propeller plane I gripped tightly to my seats’ armrests as we set off across Uzbekistan and its vast desert to the small city of Nukus, in the western portion of the country. “Will the propellers still work if we run out of fuel?”, I stupidly spat out. My mind was filled with irrational thoughts of hurdling towards the earth in something called a plane, but looked more like a small rusty tin can. “WHY is there black stuff on the wing!?” Breath. The older I get, the more terrified I get of flying. The best part, I’ve been skydiving 4 times. Let’s figure that one out.
As we started our descent I was fully convinced we were emergency landing. I looked out the window to a sea of sand. No houses. No roads. Nothing. How can there possibly be life here, none the less an airport. Somehow we landed on a tarmac that was covered with sand and the odd sage bush mysteriously creeping through the concrete. A crisp wind hit us as we walked across the tarmac to the tiny airport. Welcome to Nukus, spring break 2014!
Before deciding to come to Nukus, everyone kept asking me. Why on earth would you go there? It’s so remote and there is nothing there. False. There is only one of the most amazing art museums in the world, State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, named after I.V. Savitsky. Or less of a mouthful, the Savitsky Collection. The story behind the museum and how it came to be in Nukus is extraordinary.
Igor Savitsky was originally from Russia, but came to Karakalpakstan in the 1950s to participate in archaeological digs. In the evenings and early mornings he would paint landscapes because he thought the desert light could teach him the most about how to use color. When he returned to Russia he showed a mentor teacher his paintings, but his teacher told him they were rubbish. Heartbroken from the rejection, he returned to Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital. He first began collecting Karakalpak handicrafts but then began collecting the works of Central Asian artists and later Russian avant-garde. He would make the long voyage to Moscow where he bought art from painters that had been banned by the Soviet Party sensors because they did not conform to Soviet Realism. Despite the risks, he was obsessed with the museum and assembled a collection of over 90,000 works. Most of the art is from artists that would have otherwise been forgotten, many of whom were either placed in mental hospitals or sent to their deaths in work camps because of their forbidden art.
Seeing it first hand, it was hardly as architecturally pleasing as the Louvre but the content of the museum could rival anything in Paris. The museum itself only has the space to showcase 2,000 works, the rest sit in decrepit conditions in the basement. Because of Nukus’ remote location and lack of tourist appeal, the museum can’t afford proper humidifiers either. In the scorching summer heat, they put bowls of water in each room to help keep the paintings intact. Despite the odds, the museum has survived and is a testament to the art of resistance.
Beyond the Museum, people are right, there isn’t much in Nukus. We were there on Navrus though, so there was a fair going on in celebration of the new year. I had the usual, cotton candy. And for some reason I hadn’t fully gotten my adrenaline thrill with the flying tin can, so I decided to ride on a massive rusty bolted, teetering Ferris Wheel.
In all seriousness though, Nukus is worth the visit if you are in Uzbekistan! If you get the chance, check out this documentary on Savitsky and his museum: The Desert of Forbidden Art,