ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A world-renowned collection of avant-garde Russian art housed in a remote museum in Uzbekistan may be at risk after the director was abruptly fired on allegedly trumped-up charges of theft, staff say.
The alarm was raised by staff working at the Savitsky Karakalpkstan Museum who claim the director, Marinika Babanazarova, was forced to resign over allegations she had stolen works of art. But the staff insist that nothing has been stolen from the state-run museum, which is located in the remote city of Nukus some 800 kilometers north of Tashkent and houses more than 50,000 pieces of Soviet-era avant-garde art. They claim the move to oust Babanazarova, which has not been confirmed by the Uzbek authorities, is part of a ploy by officials to seize control of its valuable collection which has won world renown. Among the artists included in the collection are the famous cubo-futurist and suprematist Lyubov Popova, and other celebrated avant-garde painters from the first half of the 20th century such as Alexander Shevchenko and Robert Falk. Staff say her firing was “illegal” signing an open letter of protest that was posted on Facebook which alleges Babanazarova was forced out and flatly denying allegations that she had stolen works from the collection.
They said the allegations had been laid out in an anonymous letter published by the Uzbek media.
And they insisted the collection was untouched.
“The whole collection is intact and safe,” the letter said. “It seems there are people for whom it is profitable to shame the good name of the director of the museum and her staff, now that the collection of the Savitsky museum has obtained worldwide fame,” the staff wrote, demanding an investigation by the culture ministry.
The museum’s founder, Russian artist Igor Savitsky, settled in Uzbekistan in the 1950s and began amassing works of art that ran contrary to state-endorsed Socialist Realist art, largely using funds from the local authorities.
He opened the museum in 1966. The museum’s remote location meant that its collection was largely forgotten for decades but it was rediscovered in the post-Soviet era and has become a must-see for art lovers. When Savitsky died in 1984, Babanazarova took over as director of the museum, which maintained its independence despite officially belonging to the Uzbek state.
It is not the first time Babanazarova has been targeted before by the Uzbek authorities.
Four years ago, they prevented her leaving to attend the screening of a documentary on the Savitsky collection in the United States.