The fascinating story of the collection and creation of Uzbekistan’s Nukus Museum is told in Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope’s “The Desert of Forbidden Art.” A remarkable treasure trove little-known to most Westerners — or even fellow citizens of former U.S.S.R. territories — the institution showcases decades of avant-garde art suppressed over decades of cultural censoriousness. Absorbing docu is a natural for artscasters, with an outside shot at specialized theatrical exposure.
After flourishing in the 1920s, avant-gardism in all media became increasingly frowned upon by bureaucratic watchdogs who much preferred “Soviet realist” style — patriotic, propagandistic, often kitschily idealizing life under communist rule — to anything more adventuresome. Artists who chose more individual paths, which could also include religious or homosexual expressions, were often sent to mental hospitals, prison camps or the firing squad during Stalinist purges. Those who were luckier either bent their publicly shown work to official models or simply hid all efforts from view.
A frustrated painter of White Russian extraction who’d landed in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan’s autonomous northwestern republic) as an archaeologist, Igor Savitsky became fascinated by the region’s folk art. Decades of Sovietization had devalued such distinctively ethnic artifacts to the point that collecting elaborate handmade garments, jewelry, carpets, etc., initially got him branded a “rubbish man.” Yet he eventually obtained funds to open a museum in 1966 for those objects.
Its location far from Moscow censorship also allowed Savitsky to pursue what became his real passion: finding and acquiring modern art so out of synch with official taste that it was virtually unknown. This activity was “not quite legal,” since Savitsky used monies earmarked for his folk-art collection to build the modern one. He died in 1984, lungs collapsed from long exposure to toxic restoration chemicals; only afterward was the extent of his achievement recognized.
Savitsky (excerpts from his writings are read by Ben Kingsley in the film’s English-language version) is a driven, eccentric central narrative figure; Ed Asner and Sally Field voice the other deceased men and women. Interviewees include artists’ surviving children; Savitsky’s curatorial successor, Marinika Babanazarova; and various international art experts.
Many among the tens of thousands of works in the Nukus Museum’s collection have never been exhibited, being in desperate need of restoration. The combination of pinched governmental funding and rising global awareness has resulted in an ironic conundrum — for the greater good, some canvases must be auctioned off abroad long after their creators died in abject poverty. Posing perhaps a greater danger, however, is a new form of censorship: The region’s tide of Islamic fundamentalism has again made these artworks an enemy of the people in the eyes of some.
Well-crafted package captures the flavor of the region, but the most arresting sights are inevitably those of the bold, richly colored paintings themselves.