The Desert of Forbidden Art: Why an Absolutely Must Watch?

The Desert of Forbidden Art is a movie I stumbled upon by chance while researching before my trip to Uzbekistan. After watching it, I would strongly recommend it to anyone even faintly interested in art and/ or Central Asia or Communism.

About the Film: Desert of Forbidden Art

This is a documentary film made by American directors Tchavdar Georgiev, Amanda Pope on the life of Igor Vitalievich Savitsky. The movie was released in 2010. Ben Kingsley is the main narrator of the film. It is fascinating to watch how Savitsky amassed a huge collection of forbidden art during the Soviet regime. He played a pivotal role in establishing the Nukus Museum that houses the huge collection of about 90,000 items, including graphics, paintings and sculptures, artifacts, textiles and jewelry. Many works are on display, while many are still lying in the store.

The acquisition of forbidden art works during the Soviet Regime using official money is beautifully depicted in the film. The art works depicted are just mind blowing. The movie also beautifully covers how the Museum was suffering from lack of funds and was under the threat of closure. Kudos to the entire crew and Marinika for the brilliant documentary and drawing world’s attention to the great works of art.

Major Art Schools During the Soviet Union

  • Socialist Realism is a style of realistic art characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the bourgeois. The Soviet Union approved and sponsored this art form.
  • Russian Avant Garde: was a large, influential wave of modern art that flourished in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, approximately from 1890 to 1940. This art school clashed with the depictions of Socialist Realism Art. Hence the authorities forbade the art works and ordered their destruction.

Savitsky’s Life and Forbidden Art

Savitsky (1915-84) was a Russian born at Kiev into a lawyer’s family. He studied at Moscow. He went to Karakalpakstan in 1950 as the artist in the Khorezm Archeological Expedition led by the scientist Sergei P. Tolstov. Fascinated by the culture, he chose to stay back after the dig in 1957. He started working at the Karakalpak branch of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. He painted landscapes of the region and trained the local artists.

In 1966, Savitsky persuaded the local authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum. The authorities appointed him as the founding director of the Nukus Museum of Arts. He gave up painting after that. He soon began collecting forbidden art works from Moscow and other cities of the USSR, which the Soviet authorities were destroying. Most people were at first hesitant to admit that they possessed any such artworks but once Savitsky could inspire confidence, most people were relieved to part with their artworks at little or no cost. Thus, over a 15-year period, he amassed a huge collection of forbidden art works; ironically using public funds to finance his acquisitions.

However, the hardship and deprivation took a toll on his health and he died of lung cancer at a Moscow Hospital on 27 July 1984. He was buried at the Russian cemetery at Nukus.

Forbidden Art that Blew My Mind

I loved the movie and really wanted to visit the Nukus Museum but unfortunately couldn’t do so due to time constraints. But I do aim to visit it during my next trip.

At one of the museums I did visit at Bukhara, the painting below blew my mind. The artist brilliantly captures the reaction of Ulemas as they were forced to burn books at the behest of the Soviet soldiers. The artist was risking his life by making this painting but hats off to him for doing so regardless.

This painting made me further yearn for seeing the other forbidden art works the Nukus Museum. It also made me appreciate how lucky I am to be living in a country where freedom of expression is almost absolute. But all the suppression under the communist regime could not really suppress art and literature. People did create brilliant works based on genuine expression and not forced by the regime.

Forbidden Art

The Museum Now

Even after the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1990, the museum has been under monetary and political threats. Savitsky appointed Marinika Babanazarova as his successor to take over as the Museum Director after his death. Marinika has been battling all odds to guard the collection and spread awareness internationally. The government has conducted several audits of the museum and cancelled several overseas trips of the staff. The authorities have also attempted to transfer the collection to Tashkent or sell it. In Aug 2015, the authorities have suspended her on allegations that she has replaced original woks with forgeries. The museum’s staff is protesting for the reinstatement of their director. As of now the museum’s future is in jeopardy.

Thus do watch the movie. Hopefully it will help safeguard the fate of the museum and its unique forbidden art collection.

Further Reading:

Nukus Museum:

The Movie:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *