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Artist Lisa Ross describes their relationship to Uyghur shrines and culture as a story of “fate and possibly faith.” An avid traveler drawn to desert landscapes, the photo and video artist first visited the Taklamakan Desert along the former Silk Route of the Uyghur Region, officially called Xinjiang (or “New Territory) by the People’s Republic of China, in 2002. In the following decade, Ross visited over fifty holy sites nestled among sand dunes or the edges of remote oasis villages. Composed of hand-carved wooden branches and colorful flags made of silk and other fabrics, these open-air monuments are known as mazar, from the Arabic word for “shrine” or “mausoleum,” made by Uyghur pilgrims to mark the resting places of revered Muslim saints and their descendants.
Ross’s work expanded through friendship and travel with Dr. Alexandre Papas, a French historian of Islam, and Dr. Rahile Dawut, a Uyghur ethnographer missing since 2017. With greater access to the Uyghur region and people, the artist began to explore other relationships in the landscape. In the prefecture of Turpan, local tradition situates beds in the open air to navigate the extreme heat of summer. Ross saw a poetic connection between the mazars and these outdoor beds, and the vast open space both occupied. Created with wood and fabric materials similar to the shrines, the beds mirror the rectangular burial markers commemorating saints, who are believed to rest in a state of eternal sleep.
Following the period of the artist’s work in the region, historically unstable relations between the Chinese government and Uyghur people continued to worsen, resulting in what the US government now recognizes as genocide. Ross’s luminous photographs, first conceived as an homage to living shrines, have now become a moving visual elegy to the Uyghur homeland. They reflect the artist’s commitment to raising awareness about the atrocities against humanity currently ongoing in Xinjiang.
In addition to the photographs on view, two films by Ross, entitled To Mark a Prayer and RISE, provide a glimpse into the way these sacred and beloved spaces function in the Uyghur homeland.
Thoughtfully composed, poetic, and reverential in approach, Ross’s works capture the rituals and spiritual traditions associated with the desert mazars, as well as the beauty of everyday life in the region—and now represent an important archive of collective memory, histories of faith, and the perseverance of an endangered people and culture.