TASHKENT – It’s already autumn by the time my colleague Suad Garayeva and I are able to go to Uzbekistan to look for works for our 2013 “At The Crossroads” Selling Exhibition. At this time of year there are few direct flights to the Uzbek capital from London so we travel first to Baku for the night and in the morning take a flight eastwards over the Caspian Sea to Tashkent. The city lifts my spirits after a long journey; Tashkent is beautiful. There are attractive wide tree-lined boulevards with no western-style advertising and I could see no litter on the streets even outside the centre.
Our first official meeting is not in a gallery, but at the back of the large entrance hall on the ground floor of the ILKHOM theatre. Founded in 1976 as the first independent theatre in the Soviet Union, the walls are hung with an exhibition of traditional Uzbek textiles. Over twenty artists have gathered to meet us en masse, but we can accept only about half a dozen works, so there will be disappointment. We talk about the exhibition project, explain we are looking for works which will appeal most to Western collectors as the sale is in London. Before we leave we are shown around the theatre, then we set off on an ambitious two-day programme of studio visits.
Everywhere we encounter the unexpected. At Vyacheslav Akhunov’s basement studio the electricity was out, but this did not deter our host. As he enthusiastically led us into a dark room we had to use our iPhones as torches. Confronting us first in the semi-dark a large cage filled with white plaster busts of Lenin, and then a disturbing reminder of the artist’s dissident past: a prison uniform tied to an easel. Later we were driven to Murad Karabaev’s space inside a picturesque courtyard with pomegranate trees where the artist picked fruits for us.
Gayane Umerova invited us to lunch at a traditional Uzbek restaurant where we ate at a low table, sitting cross-legged on cushions. Gayane is a senior curator of the National Bank collection in Tashkent and an expert in Uzbek modern and contemporary art. She is keen to show us around the city in between our studio visits and we spend a few hours sightseeing. Our first stop is the lively Chorsu Bazaar to buy Uzbek hats. Then on to the old town and Hast Imom complex of mosques built in the years immediately following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, when Islam once again became the official religion of Uzbekistan.