Search results: karakalpakstan

Savitsky Collection Reveals New Collections!

5 Dec

13165363405258551681_1During Cat’s silk road travels a couple of years ago, she spent six weeks in Uzbekistan, and has since remained highly interested in the area. One of the cultural highlights of the region is the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, which is home to the Savitsky Collection, and hosts the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant garde art.  It is also home to one of the largest collections of archaeological objects and folk, applied and contemporary art originating from Central Asia. The museum is in fact claimed to be the fourth splendour of Uzbekistan, and is certainly worth checking out if you intend to pass through the area.

After her initial trip there, Cat continues to receive updates from the museum, and is keen to share some of their highlights with you.  for one, the museum has recently opened up a new exhibition entitled “Artist and Theatre”. This brings together nearly 100 artworks by Russian and Uzbek artists from the Savitsky Collection, focusing on the works of the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition includes such renowned artists as Mikhail Kurzin, Elena Korovay, Victor Ufimtsev, M. Sokolov, A. Sardan, Vasily Shukhaev and Ural Tansykbaev.

In addition to the impressive collection of artwork, there has been a recent buzz around the discovery of a “portrait gallery” of Khorezm’s kings, discovered on the site of the ancient settlement of Akshakhan-Kala. Scholars have dated the murals to the end of the 2nd century BC to the beginning of the 1st century AD, and these are now on display at the Karakalpakstan Museum.

Read the full newsletter for more information on the Museum and upcoming events.


The Savitsky Collection in Uzbekistan: See it for Yourself

6 Jun

The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, home of The Savitsky Collection, is located in Nukus, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in northwest Uzbekistan. It contains the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant garde art and is home to one of the largest collections of archeological objects and folk, applied and contemporary art originating from Central Asia. The Nukus Museum is the fourth splendor of Uzbekistan and the Savitsky Collection has been called “one of the most outstanding museums of the world” by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

To raise awareness of its work, the mesuem has started to send out a newsletter which outlines some of the  highlights of the Savitsky Collection, as well as some of the improvements in transport infrastructure, guest accommodations, flight schedules from Tashkent. Read it here,

Over the last several years, visitors to the museum has steadily increased, and its name as a house of acclaimed art has spread. To find out more for yourself and discover the vast array of art collected, visit the website here.


New biography on Igor Savitsky, a man who fell in love with a distant world

26 Sep


I have talked in previous blog posts about the unique story of the adopted Karakalpak Ivor Savitsky and his museum.   His biography is now available.  “Igor Savitsky-Artist, Collector, Museum Founder” is written by Marinika Babanazarova, Igor Savitsky’s successor as Director of the Museum since his death in 1984 and published by Silk Road Media (UK, Hertfordshire).


Since the early 2000s, Igor Savitsky’s life and accomplishments have earned increasing international recognition. He and the museum he founded in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan in the far northwest of Uzbekistan, have also been the subject of numerous articles in the world’s most important newspapers and magazines, such as El Païs, Le Figaro, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Guardian, and the New York Times, of television programs in Australia, Germany, and Japan, and, most recently, of two full length documentary films. Marinika Babanazarova’s memoir is based on her 1990 graduate dissertation at theashkent Theatre and Art Institute (Department of Theory and History of Art). It draws upon correspondence, official records, and other documents about the Savitsky family that have become available during the last few years, as well as the recollections of a wide range of people who knew Igor Savitsky personally. As she states in the foreword to this deeply moving and personal narrative. “I hope this memoir will serve not only as a multifaceted, broad-based portrait of a great man who was my mentor, but also as a tribute to his legacy.”


The book’s publication—in separate Russian and English editions—was made possible with the support of several members of the Friends of Nukus Museum, a nongovernmental, voluntary organization registered in The Netherlands.


A book launch and signing by the author is planned for November 9, 2011 at the Pushkin House, 5A Blooksbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA. Further details will be announced nearer that date.


Meanwhile, the book is on sale at £10, €11, or US$15 at the Nukus Museum and at selected locations in Tashkent, London*, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. All sales proceeds go directly to the Museum to support the maintenance and preservation of the Savitsky Collection.


Further information about the Nukus Museum and the Friends of Nukus Museum may be obtained from its website:


International orders can be made at or via email

The Savitsky Museum – under attack

6 Apr

The Savitsky museum was one of the most enjoyable features of my month’s stay in Nukus, Uzbekistan.  The story of how a collection of some 90 000 pieces of avant-guard Russian 20th century art ended up in some dusty dead end of central Asia  is one of the most romantic, heart-warming, and – I now fear – tragic stories from my travels.  This tale of isolation, protection from Bolshevik threat and belonging now has another enemy – the current Uzbek regime under Karimov.

Savitsky was an educated Ukrainian artist and aesthete, brought up by well-off parents who lost everything under the Bolshevik revolution.  Though educated in the Moscow Conservatory, he was appalled by the Bolshevik’s destruction of all art that was not social realism.  His sense of alienation from the time,society and place he had been born into meant that he fell in love with Karakalpakstan while on a five year journey as artist of an ethnographic tour of Central Asia, and stayed in this severed enclave of the USSR.   Throughout the following forty years, Savitsky’s bond with his adopted country became only tighter as he explored the history, culture, art and traditions of the area.   He established a museum for the region – and it was to this museum that he brought the many works of art that he smuggled from the rest of the USSR.  At his death in the eighties, Savitsky handed over the control of the Museum to Marinika Babanazarova, a remarkable woman who has acted as custodian for the museum, her culture, and Savitsky’s vision ever since.

Karakalpakstan is a place of great beauty and interest: the semi-nomadic people have oral legends stretching back centuries, of their warrior queens (upon whom the Amazons are based and who sent Darius’ head back to Syria in an amphora of his own blood) and describing their role as custodians of the fertile lands of the Aral seas and 3000 year old ruins of Khworezm.  However, 60 years of soviet misrule followed by 20 years of Karimov’s similar exploitation has devastated the land and its people.  Nukus, main city, is a dusty soviet backwater of concrete and unemployment.   The new Savitsky museum built in the early 2000s is the place to have your wedding photos taken in Nukus, and looked remarkably out of place in the surrounding flat streets with tumbleweed blowing down them.  Tourists would arrive by taxi from Khiva, visit the museum for two hours and then leave.   It’s a sign – in the midst of the cultural, ecological and economic ghettoisation – that Karakalpaks have the potential to shape their life for the better.

This is not a positive prospect for some.  Already when I was there in September, there were rumours of troubles – Uzbek officials trying to move the collection to Tashkent, jealousy about the international attraction of the museum and its Director, concerns that the popularity and presence of a Karakalpak museum threatened Uzbek cultural unity and identity.  I didn’t expect trouble to hit so quickly: whether because a new film (the Desert of Forbidden Art) was being released, or because they want the collection to be sold for government coffers, or because the officials had finally had enough – for whatever reason, one of the museum’s buildings has been closed, the museum is being subjected to multiple inspections, and the museum’s future doesn’t look great.  For more news on what it happening, see here and here.

Monty Python does Kafka – a farce in four parts

28 Sep

In my summary to British Embassy Tashkent, I made the following observations about my impromptu stay in Karakalpakstan:

  • I was well treated by the junior customs officials, who were professional and did everything to help (including arranging accommodation, providing food, etc).
  • It’s a bloody mess, as you must experience the whole time. It was impossible to get any documents from anyone (e.g., despite repeated requests from my lawyer I never got even the police decree opening the investigation), the judge didn’t know the law properly, customs and border police did not understand their own or others’ processes or documents, and once the police investigation had started, no amount of evidence (prescription, proof of purchase from the UK, etc) made any difference because no one was prepared to take the decision to stop it.
  • All officials absolutely refuse to put anything in writing that is outside their narrow process – judge, police or customs. This includes providing information on names, processes or administrative structures. I requested at each meeting that any key information provided to me was put in writing – I pushed particularly hard on the visa issue, following your advice. Without exception, everyone refused. The risk of shifting parameters was therefore impossible to manage – and certainly the most frustrating part of the experience. You could see problems arising, everyone gave verbal assurances that all would be ok, but refused to document anything. This behaviour extended throughout the foodchain.
  • All state officials have obviously been told to treat tourists well, but at the same time there is a very real fear about the ‘internal police’. This has the impact of paralysing any decision-making process, since officials are worried about creating problems for tourists but are also not prepared to stop the process for fear of bringing themselves under suspicion.
  • In summary, the whole situation was farcical, punctuated with moments of real fear. I had a fascinating time in Karakalpakstan and was treated well and respectfully – and most importantly, I had no dependents or work that I needed to return to. I was relatively philosophical about the fact that a certain degree of inconvenience was going to happen because I had inadvertently contravened a guideline of the Republic of Uzbekistan which needed explanation. Most of the time, therefore, the complications and convolutions just had to be ridden out with a sense of humour and a shrug of shoulders. Sometimes, however, you felt caught up in an inherited soviet system, that is both efficient and relentless, and yet anonymous and impossible to understand – let alone influence or reason with.

So the entire story has elements of farce and ridiculousness, which stopped being quite so funny when it started escalating like crazy. I’ve divided it up into four parts…

Full disclosure

23 Sep

49 brick lane photo

The 49-ers ready for action (credit Andrea Mancuso)

The reason why I have been rather lax in updating my blog is because I have been having an unscheduled adventure in the distant north-western part of Uzbekistan. This is how I described it to the Lonely Planet:

Information for travellers to Uzkekistan:

Do not carry sleeping tablets (diazepam, etc) without a doctor’s prescription on you, translated and certified. Many of these drugs are classified as Class B illegal drugs here and you can get into big trouble. I was stopped at the border leaving the country, and handed over my medicine case including these pills which were prescribed by my doctor and brought from the UK. I was informed this was a problem that would be sorted out within hours, and two weeks later, it looks like it will still take another week before I can leave. And I am very lucky that it is only taking that long.

Very quickly, and without my being given the relevant information, the situation escalated until I was being investigated under the trafficking article of the law, with a potential penalty of 5-20 years imprisonment.  I had 14 tablets of 5mg Diazepam in one strip of pills. The amount at which it becomes a serious crime is 60mg. Although I carried only 2 tablets over this limit, the juggernaut of the criminal justice machine was put into action and it has proven extremely difficult to stop it.   There has been no danger of imprisonment or anything else – the only problem is that everything just takes a really long time.

Despite my excellent embassy involvement, a copy of the prescription from my UK doctor plus proof of purchase, and a presidential amnesty (due to the fortuity of the timing – National day of 1st Sept), the bureaucratic process is so slow and complex here that things take forever. All civil servants seem to be scared of taking responsibility for any decision. Everyone in the system – lawyers, chief prosecuters, police, customs, and the ministries in Tashkent – all want this process to stop and have individually been very pleasant and helpful, but the process takes its time.

I am lucky that I am being treated very well – I am staying at a hotel, have not been charged, or had my passport confiscated. I am also very lucky with the timing of the presidential amnesty (the other amnesty period is the 8th December) and the fact that there are good relations between Uzbekistan and the West at the moment. However, this is a word of caution for travelers.

28 days later, it’s over. I am going to make my brother’s wedding after all (I was considering changing my residency permanently to Uzbekistan if I’d missed that one).  Everything is now sorted out with the Uzbek authorities.  And I bet no-one – but no-one – has ever felt such a feeling of liberation on crossing the frontier into Turkmenistan. A massive Thank You goes to the British Embassy in Tashkent, especially the consular service team, and in particular to Denise and Timur for their help the whole way through as well as troubleshooting a last-minute glitch.

Apart from a handful of hairy moments, it was actually an amazing experience. The most stressful part was having an IT-‘expert’-aided computer meltdown, losing half of my photos, all my writing, and having the rest of the hard drive totally scrambled. Which shows that wherever you are, IT (and IT support) is still the biggest source of hassle in 21st century life. Oh, and having two separate root canal treatments, which proves – I REALLY hope – that bad luck does come in threes.

Of all the places to be stranded for four weeks, Karakalpakstan – the region of Uzbekistan that I was in – would not have been my first choice. 1000km from the capital, home to the Aral sea disaster, closed off from even the rest of the USSR during the Cold War as a biological testing site, and spartan in landscape and amenities (desolate some would say), it’s not the most touristic of places at a quick glance.

But it was an absolutely fascinating place to be and it was a privilege to spend time with Karakalpaks. They are a people living in extraordinary times and an extraordinary place described in 1990 as ‘an ecological ghetto plagued by poverty, unemployment, disease and shortage of food.’ And it’s only got worse since then. Their culture and art are superficially supported by the Uzbek government. But their political and economic relationship with the centre is complex, especially around the production of cotton – and new gas and oil explorations will only exacerbate these tensions. The Aral sea gave them their identity, existence, way of life, inspiration and materials for self-expression – and as the Aral sea disappears, so do the prospects of these people.


9 Jul


…I spend a pedestrian life trying to find excuses to return back to the region.  I have set up FromOverHere, a consultancy providing international affairs and strategy advice.  Its mission is to support organisations navigate a complex world.  I’m especially interested in how governments might address 21C challenges.  Given my motivating principles are a focus on social justice and the need to bring different sectors together to jointly address the challenges of the 21st century world, it seems like the right place to be at the moment.


It’s increasingly hard – which is a nice thing – to separate work and fun time.  I’m reading, writing, rediscovering cooking, travelling, and catching up with people (whether my Portuguese family, friends from UK or studying abroad, living in Brick Lane, my adopted Senegalese family, or the many fascinating people whose ideas I get to listen to).  What has been most precious about life since my silk route journey is the freedom to follow my somewhat wibbly, often sartoriously challenging, always entertaining star.

Origins of the blog

This blog was started for my trip through Central Asia in 2010. Eight years previously, Christian Aid had sent me to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Before my visit, Central Asia was a place I hadn’t really thought about, that had no defining features in my consciousness. Yet once there, I was captivated by the two countries and wanted to learn more about them. My experience was shaped by the tension between the sense of an ancient heritage and modern soviet anonymity. Complex fluid identities were feeling their way through evolving nation-statehood – while remaining proud of their importance to the world’s history over the past 4000 years. I saw great beauty in the places and people I visited, facing hospitality and suspicion, and contrasts of arid and fertile landscapes. The fascination of my brief stay there meant I developed an addiction for reading about this region, from Alexander the Great to the Silk route travelers, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Tamerlaine, Genghis Khan, the Great Game, Andrew of Lonjumeau and Tavernier. On leaving my job in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I decided to match words to places and seek out the 21st century reality of the silk route region. Russia | Kazakhstan | Uzbekistan | Kyrgyzstan | Turkmenistan

My Route

The original route

The original route

The best-laid plans…in fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan on the border with the closed-off section of Turkmenistan. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am somewhat sad I missed these countries. However given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, I would not change my itinerary as it occurred.

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Oh for the best-laid plans… In fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan in North Uzbekistan on the border with the ‘closed-border’ zone of Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan. I was held captive as many before me in the palm of Old Urgench, Khwarezm, Khiva and Parthia. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am sad I missed these countries. Given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, however, I would not change not one day of my expedition.


Savitsky | Nukus | Aral Sea | Karakalpakstan