It felt like an omen. As people filed out of the state musical theater in Nukus, Uzbekistan, after celebrations to mark the centenary of the late founder of the city’s remarkable avant-garde art museum, rain began to fall.
One notable absence at those September 4 festivities was the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art’s director, 59-year-old Marinika Babanazarova, who was facing interrogation for a third successive day in Tashkent, 800 kilometers away, according to people familiar with the situation. That elephant in the room was tacitly acknowledged by one of the foreign guests present — the UNESCO representative in Uzbekistan, Krista Pikkat.
“On this occasion, I would like to pay tribute to all those people who have contributed to keeping this legacy alive,” Pikkat said. “It is first and foremost, of course, the people working at the museum, who have worked hard to keep the collection intact.”
The words were telling, given the accusations that have been leveled at Babanazarova, who has faced a slew of smear attacks, including in state media. A television report aired two days before the centenary celebrations alleged that five paintings worth $225,000 had gone missing from the Nukus museum and been replaced with forgeries. Another three museum employees are also said to be facing questioning over the allegations.
Babanazarova resigned in late August in what her colleagues described as a state of exhaustion. Her replacement was the former director of the military museum in Nukus.
The outpouring of support from international art lovers and, most tellingly, a defiant public show of support from her own staff have since encouraged Babanazarova to rescind her resignation.
The festive proceedings on September 4 were held in honor of Igor Savitsky, who collected thousands of avant-garde works that now form the backbone of the Nukus museum’s collection. For all the murky happenings of late, organizers of the celebration tried to convey a sense of joyousness.
Following speeches by Pikkat, Deputy Culture Minister Fatih Jalolov and others, a gala spectacle featuring traditional dances, as well as classical and pop music, got underway. Along with the top officials in attendance, the theater was jam-packed with local students in uniform — a staple feature at such state-organized events.
Many said they had wavered about whether to attend, but finally agreed to go out of respect to Savitsky, who handpicked Babanazarova to take over as curator of his collection before he died in 1984. Junior museum staff attended none of the celebrations, although it was unclear whether they were excluded or stayed away for other reasons.
In his speech, Jalolov spoke with reverence for the creator of the museum, Savitsky, who took great personal risks to assemble the startling collection of works in the heart of the Karakalpak desert. Savitsky was not only interested in collecting, but also devoted his years in Uzbekistan to learning about the native Karakalpak population. It was that aspect of his efforts for which Jalolov accorded particular praise.
Invitations were not easy to obtain for locals, and the festivities were not widely publicized. Only one billboard, outside the museum, touted Savitsky’s upcoming 100th birthday. One Nukus resident suggested that local people are not typically informed of such events out of security concerns.
With Babanazarova not participating, the program for celebrations was significantly curtailed. A planned visit to Savitsky’s grave was cancelled and museum employees only got their program of events on the eve, which left them little time to make any preparations. Once the concert was over, guests were invited to a function held at a restaurant.
As guests nibbled on food, one participant declared a toast to Babanazarova, which was met with mute approval among those present. Much chatter was devoted to praise for Babanazarova, who many attendees described as honest and dedicated.
The party later carried on to a special exhibition to mark the centenary. Although recent state media reports have implied that security at the museum was lax, all guests at the special event were required to leave their bags in the cloakroom.
While the allegations against Babanazarova continue to unfold, few are willing to venture anything too bold about what is to happen to the Nukus museum. “I had a brief discussion about it with the Minister of Culture and Sports of Uzbekistan, who was concerned by the situation at the museum and determined to address it,” Pikkat said. “I reassured the minister of UNESCO’s readiness to provide any assistance that may be required in this regard.”
The centenary date had initially been earmarked for the opening of two new wings of the Savitsky museum. Only a relatively small space is currently available for the display of paintings, which means that the vast bulk of the collection is stashed away in storage. Those new premises may now be inaugurated next year, barring any further delays.
Individuals familiar with the situation indicated that Babanazarova had discovered unspecified corrupt practices related to the new construction, and was striving to stamp them out. It was those actions that might have landed her in trouble, the individuals suggested.
A source at the museum said Babanazarova had planned to retire after the opening of the wings. One employee told Eurasianet.org: “We hope she will return.”
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture in Central Asia.