It was supposed to be a day of festivities at a world-famous art museum out in the desert of western Uzbekistan. Instead, the stench of scandal sullied the occasion.
As dignitaries assembled in the region of Karakalpakstan on September 4 to celebrate the centenary of Igor Savitsky, the founder of a museum housing a stunning collection of Russian avant-garde paintings, Uzbekistan’s art world is embroiled in a scandal featuring charges of forgery and embezzlement and suspicions of political machinations.
At the center of the controversy stands Marinika Babanazarova, the redoubtable hitherto director of the museum and the woman to whom Savitsky entrusted his life’s work when he died in 1984. By that time, the intrepid Soviet archeologist-turned-art-collector had amassed thousands of artworks that would otherwise have faced destruction, condemned by Soviet authorities as “decadent” and “bourgeois.” Savitsky hid the works far from Moscow’s prying eyes in Karakalpakstan, an arid autonomous region in western Uzbekistan, to preserve them for posterity.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.