An Improbable Museum: Russian Avant-garde, Ancient Khorezmian Artifacts, Karakalpak Indigenous Crafts

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The sixth colloquium in the series features Zukhra Kasimova, PhD Candidate, University of Illinois at Chicago. She will present on “An Improbable Museum: Russian Avant-garde, Ancient Khorezmian artifacts, and Karakalpak indigenous crafts in Igor Savitsky’s Collection in Nukus, 1966-1984.” Savitsky art museum in Karakalpakstan (Central Asia) houses a unique and extensive collection of Russian avant-garde art. In the popular imagination, this museum emerges as the “Louvre in the desert” or the “Louvre of the steppes,” which is located in the “Soviet Polynesia”. Correspondingly, in these popular tropes, Igor Savitsky–the museum’s creator–emerges as a “Central Asian Paul Gauguin,” “Uzbek Tretyakov,” and “Soviet Schindler of the avant-garde.” These tropes strike one as blatantly orientalizing, exoticizing, and meaningless because they serve to replace the lack of information about the museum with cultural clichés. These and other narratives, I argue, have emerged due to the lack of access to the archival documents. As a result, there is no academic history of this museum as a collection and an institution. In my reconstruction of the museum’s history, I intend to show the complex hybrid nature of this art institution, which combined Karakalpak authentic “primitive” art with Soviet avant-garde paintings, as well as popular crafts with revolutionary art. The implied similarity between the two seemingly disparate art forms helped to revive the creative context of Soviet nation-building of the 1920s when the revolutionary avant-garde searched for inspiration in elementary forms of popular artistic creativity and served as the antithesis of the artificially stabilized “national” Uzbek art (and life) in Tashkent. In reconstructing this story for the first time in historiography, I will show how the museum’s founders (Karakalpak natives alongside Igor Savitsky), as well as their opponents in the capital of the Uzbek republic–Tashkent, negotiated and re-imagined the limits and the meaning of “Soviet” and “national” by manipulating the central Soviet authorities in Moscow.

Zukhra Kasimova holds an MA in Comparative History (2016) from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a visiting researcher at the New York University’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia. The tentative title of her dissertation is “Uzbek, Karakalpak, and Soviet: Multinational in Form, Hybrid in Content, 1941–1981.”