Living Shrines of Uyghur China: Between Spirit and Politics (part I)

“The history of the shrine is less important than its current function: many of the shrines’ actual histories and religious initiations have been forgotten over time. It is through a specific function that shrines derive their real meaning for the people who visit them.”—Rahila Dawut, Uyghur Ethnographer

Image from exhibition
Unrevealed, Site 3 (Harvest Prayers 2), 2010

Earlier this month, Lisa Ross’s photographic exhibition Living Shrines of Uyghur China came to a close at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, but its accompanying book—with contributions from Central Asian historian Alexandre Papas, Uyghur ethnographer Rahilä Dawut, curator Beth Citron, and Ross herself—remains as a lasting contribution to scholarship on society and culture in Xinjiang. A closer look at the exhibition, the book, and the numerous reviews of each continues a conversation begun in a previous blog post about the process by which visual representation of Central Asia produces knowledge of the region for the general western public, and how that knowledge informs structures of power and politics.

The shrines photographed occur in the Taklamakan Desert at burial sites of or sites once visited by Muslim saints, healers, and holy figures. Mazâr, the local term for such a site, literally means “place for visiting” or “place of paying homage.” Believers have made pilgrimages to such shrines for over ten centuries, either during religious festivals or when they have sought a specific saint’s intercession with either a personal or communal problem. Pilgrims adorn the shrines with devotional offerings that range from animal sacrifices to small, handmade dolls left as prayers for healing or fertility.

Exhibition image
Two Dolls, 2009

If there is one unifying sense which permeates the exhibition and all of the commentary surrounding it, it is one of liminality. In the pilgrim’s experience, the mazâr is the conduit between living and the dead, the earthly and the holy. For Ross, the images are the vehicle that brings an internal experience into the external world. Aesthetically, the museum audience is confronted with “an upward impulse, a skyward thrust,” and finds itself “suspended between the vaulted Central Asian sky to which holiness draws us, and the earth below—the sand that threatens to bury us, the mud-brick which entombs the dead,” as historian James Millward described at a gallery talk. The shrines seamlessly blend natural elements and man-made objects. Their very physical existence is at once permanent and fleeting; these ancient sites not only change with every offering, but are constantly challenged by shifting sands and other natural forces. Meanwhile, their meaning and use within Uyghur culture are increasingly encroached upon by “modernization.” Finally, Xinjiang itself is an “in-between” place—historically a cultural crossroads and in present-day, the borderland of a large and powerful state. This kind of tension seems to emanate from the subject to its exhibition, as the very event of viewing the photographs of the shrines is both eternal and particular, aesthetic and instructional.

Spiritual or Political?

In a number of sources, Ross states that she “made a conscious decision to remain apolitical,” but the subject is unavoidably so. In his book essay, Papas makes note of China’s struggle against “illegal religious activities.” Its atheist campaigns a thing of the past, the state now effectively represses the pilgrimages by categorizing the shrines as “cultural patrimony sites” (mädäniyät yadikarliq orun), which makes them eligible for protection and restoration, but also state control. This classification officially acknowledges a religious aspect of Uyghur identity, but it also “museifies” shrines and makes them inaccessible to pilgrims in the name of preservation or tourism, causing them to lose their spiritual and societal functions. In her interview in the book, Dawut explains the societal importance of shrines in Uyghur culture as sites which reinforce cultural and economic exchange and sustain community ties. When the state intervenes at these sites, it damages these functions. As the name of the exhibition suggests, the shrines are more than static monuments representing a particular version of history which feeds into a people’s understanding of itself. To disrupt the life of a mazâr is to disrupt the very practice of being Uyghur.

Image from exhibition
Unrevealed, Site 11 (Golden Tomb), 2009

This context is immediately seized-upon by the US audience, whose reviews tend to frame the importance of the exhibition with mention of Xinjiang’s “difficult relations with Beijing,” or the threat of major Uyghur cultural sites being destroyed by Chinese modernization. Through this lens, the American viewer’s interest in the subject is as an extension of his own society’s alarm over China. The Uyghur shrines are made meaningful only by their relationship with China. Their predicament fits into the popular dichotomous paradigm in which the economic ascendancy of China as based on cheap, soulless, dishonest, mass-production threatens the quality, authenticity, ingenuity, and individuality of the American spirit. In the book preface, Ross describes her first encounter with a mazâr: “Everything had been created by hand; nothing had the feeling of a machine. Each object I passed was carved, sewn, built, or placed with intention.”

While the images and the context given to them reinforce the prevailing American understanding of Chinese modernization, they challenge that of Islam and Xinjiang’s “knife-wielding religious extremists.” “Looking at these bright, numinous images, we begin to sense something inexpressible but more profound than any of the region’s difficult politics—a glimpse at the intangible traditions and beliefs that have given shape to Xinjiang’s Muslims over many centuries,” writes Ian Johnson for the New York Review of Books Blog. The viewer is not merely presented with this more nuanced picture of Islam to observe and appreciate; through Ross’s skill he is drawn in and given the opportunity to have his own spiritual encounter. “I wanted the viewer to be the believer, to stand in front of this marker imbued with so much faith and have an intimate experience,” Ross explains.

To be continued…