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Forbidden treasures

"Desert of Forbidden Art" brings Igor Savitsky’s unbelievable collection to Olympia

Desert of Forbidden Art

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How unlikely was it that 40,000 works of Russian avant-garde art, forbidden by the former Soviet Union, would be housed in a museum in Uzbekistan?

When told about the museum, filmmaker Tchavdar Georgiev at first didn't even believe it.

"We heard about this incredible collection in the middle of the desert," says Georgiev, who lived in Russia until he was seven-years-old and speaks the language fluently. "I said, ‘That is simply impossible. There can be nothing of any value there.' So we didn't go."

Impossible but true, as he found out and is now sharing with the world via Desert of Forbidden Art, screening in Olympia May 7-12. Georgiev and fellow filmmaker Amanda Pope, a professor at the University of Southern California, will speak at the first screening Saturday.

Georgiev, then a recent USC grad, had accompanied Pope on a 2000 tour of the former Soviet Union to profile emerging leaders. The trip took them to Uzbekistan and then to Moscow where they encountered a book about the Nukus Museum.

"We were at a flea market, and I challenged the salesman to show me something I'd never seen," Georgiev says. "He showed me this very rare book about this collection in Uzbekistan.

"I told Amanda, ‘Why do you have to always be right? Let's go there.' "

Tucked away in Nukus, which had been a closed to visitors until the Soviet Union ended because biological weapons were developed there, was the world's second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, a style that had been banned in the Soviet Union, where the government approved only social realism glorifying the country.

The forbidden works, along with regional folk and fine art and antiquities, were collected by artist Igor Savitsky - with government funding.

"Savitsky collected an incredible collection of folk craft," Georgiev says. "The local Communist Party leader was shocked at what kind of love Savitsky had for his people and their art. He gave him money under the table to open a museum, and he closed a blind eye to the other project that Savitsky was doing."

Finding and transporting the paintings was an enormous challenge.

"He made a 1,700-mile journey over 20 times," Georgiev says. "He would take the paintings and other art objects with him on the train, and then when the train tracks ended, he would have to hitchhike and cross the desert. He would sit in the back of a truck with the paintings."

The film tells Savitsky's story and the stories of some of the artists who worked in secret and hid their art through documents and interviews with descendants.

"I found these paintings rolled up under the beds of old widows, buried in family trash, in dark corners of artists' studios, sometimes even patching a hole in the roof," Savitsky wrote. (The deceased collector's words are read by actor Ben Kingsley in the film.)

The filmmakers' purpose: to bring awareness to the museum and thus protect it.

"Here we are dealing with a virtually unknown collection in a remote-to-most-Americans part of the world," Pope says. "We want to bring international support to the collection."

For it would seem that the art is still not in favor with the government. Last year, the museum's current director was scheduled to visit the United States to speak at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but her visa was revoked without explanation.

And a month later, Uzbekistan closed the oldest of the museum's three buildings; it's scheduled for demolition. Over 2,000 paintings were bussed out of the museum and are now stacked in the hallways of another building.

"We hope the Uzbek government would appreciate the treasure they have there," Georgiev says, "but it hasn't happened yet."

Desert of Forbidden Art with filmmakers

Saturday, May 7, 6:30 p.m.

$8.50, $5.50 for Olympia Film Society members, $4 for kids

Film screens daily through May 12

Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. S.E., Olympia

360.754.6670 or or

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