Saturday 31 December 2011

The disappearing Aral Sea and the Savitzky Museum of forbidden art - Uzbekistan 3

Uzbekistan by Yekkes

One of the many "ghost" boats stranded on what was once the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea which borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is the site of one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century. The sea was once the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world but between 1960 and 2011, the sea has decreased to just 10% of its former size.

What caused this? The siphoning off of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers to feed thirsty cotton crops established during Soviet times, described as white gold, but responsible for the lingering death of the once beautiful Aral sea. As well as the sea disappearing, so has the once thriving fishing industry, leaving towns like Moynaq, a former fishing town, now more than one hundred kilometres away from the sea. 10,000 people once worked in the fishing industry, now completely gone.

The former sea bed near Moynaq is a vast desert of sand, wild grasses and abandoned and rusting boats. Many of the boats have now been removed but some have been left for tourists to photograph and perhaps as a reminder of what once was. There is a smell of salt in the air, a warm wind and unusual, beautiful but threatening cloud formations above the dry seabed. The Aral sea was once an attraction for its beautiful waters and plentiful fish - now it draws tourists who want to see the site of a man made disaster of epic proportions.

Some way south of Moynaq and not far from the border with Turkmenistan lies Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpaks are a distinct ethnic group, but there are also significant numbers of Uzbeks and Russians there as well as other "nationalities". 

The main reason to visit Nukus is the Igor Savitsky Museum, home to thousands of paintings by Russian artists from the 1920's and 1930's, prohibited by the Soviet regime along with all art that was not deemed Socialist Realist. Savitsky was an artist himself but is more famous for saving the works of artists such as Viktor Ufimtsev, Aleksander Volkov, Alexey Yusupov, Elena Korovay and my own favourite, Ural Tansykbaev. Tansykbaev was an Uzbek artist and several of his brightly coloured works from the 1920's and early 1930's are displayed in the museum. They show an idealised Uzbekistan of apple harvesting, fruits and spices, musicians and herdsmen.

Crimson Autumn - Ural Tansykbaev

Savitsky purchased many of the paintings from impoverished artists, unable to work because of Soviet policy, artist's widows, and its even said that some were rescued from skips. Savitsky, a Muscovite, worked with Marat Nurmukhamedov, an Uzbek scholar to collect and preserve the collection as well as many examples of Karakalpak traditional arts - at one time discouraged by the Soviets as part of a policy of suppressing non-Russian culture. Many examples of these crafts can also be found in the museum.

Aleksey Isupov

Tea House by Alexey Usupov

Savitsky eventually died for his art. Not because of offending authority, but through not taking appropriate safety precautions when using noxious chemicals to restore and preserve his precious paintings. A whole day could easily be spent at the museum which has a good cafe and a small gift shop. An excellent film has been made about Savitsky and his collection called The Desert of Forbidden Art. More information about the museum (and the film) can be found at


Dyers by Elena Korovay

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