Shao Ma was Hui, Chinese Muslim. He had a feel for the kinds of landscapes that interested me, even though we had no language in common. He was quiet and thoughtful. He pointed into the desert. There seemed to be a footpath in the sand, forged by use over time. Following his nod, I walked in, over small sand dunes and then a large dune. Colors began to reveal themselves. In the distance I could see what looked like wooden cribs or rafts, cresting on dry land, animated by colored flags beating in the wind. As I neared the markers, there seemed to be animals with arms and legs stuck atop tall wooden posts. As I continued to walk farther, the spirit of this place became all consuming. 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.
Although no one else could be seen, there was evidence that many had walked here recently. Spirit vibrated. After I walked a kilometer, an ancient mosque revealed itself, as if emerging from the sand, birds circling around the minaret. A long history was evident. Yet I had little idea of where exactly I was or how I had gotten here.
A chance encounter with a young Parisian by the name of Alexandre Papas a week later on a rickety minibus would make my return to that desert possible. Two years would pass before we traveled together in the summer of 2004, an artist and a scholar, I with my camera and he as a historian of Central Asian Islam able to speak and write the Uyghur language. During our two-year correspondence, Alexandre shared the history of the region and meaning behind the photographs I made that day with Shao Ma in the desert.
The story of my relationship to mazâr (holy sites) is one of fate and possibly faith. With each step I took, another door opened. When people ask me how I chose this subject, the most suitable answer is that it chose me. The truth is, I was very drawn to deserts. In the three years prior I had visited the Sahara twice and Sinai once. Often an artist will arrive at a place and it becomes her home, a place where all the channels open up and she finds she can create freely without hesitation. The Taklamakan Desert and its surrounding oasis villages and cities became this for me.
When Alexandre and I returned to the Taklamakan, it was with a book in hand, a hagiography Alexandre had come across in his research. This pilgrim’s guidebook, written in Uyghur and published in 2001, describes eighty-six mazâr. It provides information about these holy sites, such as approximate locations and histories, the names of saints, and descriptions of the miracles they performed. This book became our bible and guide. On the book jacket was a small photograph of the author, Rahilä Dawut, a woman who would later lead me far beyond the pages of her dissertation.
Alexandre and I traversed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, managing to visit more than twenty-five mazâr. We traveled by foot, donkey cart, bicycle, minivan, taxi, train, and bus. Because Alexandre could communicate in the local language, we were assisted, directed, fed, and carried by many along the way. Our journey to each mazâr was a unique pilgrimage.
The School of Oriental and African Studies in London had organized a conference on Uyghur culture, to be held in the fall of 2004. When I learned that Rahilä Dawut was presenting, I contacted the organizer. Alexandre and I were granted a twenty-minute presentation. It was then that I met Rahilä, who was stunned that her book had made such an impact on the lives of two foreigners. After I shared the images I had made of the mazâr, she explained that she did a lot of fieldwork and could benefit from learning more about photography. She asked if I wanted to return and travel with her. We met in Urumuqi in May 2005 and traveled together for six weeks.
Working with Rahilä was like moving from the outside to the inside. The travel was still long and rigorous, the mazâr remote. But wherever we went we met friends or family, and we were always invited in. I learned to bring along gifts. When we visited the peasant parents of one of Rahilä’s students, I asked what I could bring as a gift. Rahilä held a bag of crystallized sugar, what I call rock candy and the Uyghurs call nawat. Everyone needs sugar; it’s expensive, never goes bad, and can always be regifted. Hospitality is deeply rooted in Uyghur culture. I came to see it as integral to maintaining balance and a sense of community. As Uyghurs are rarely permitted to leave someone empty-handed, I was once given a bag of fresh boiled eggs.
Somehow all the experiences Rahilä and I shared brought me closer to the holy sites. I began to see the markers that people created for their family members as portraits of those who had passed but also of those who were still living. We arrived at one large mazâr that held an annual festival the day before the big pilgrimage, because Rahilä wanted to get permission to photograph. I’d come here before with Alex when there were a few people, and I had also come alone. This mazâr was the site Shao Ma had silently directed me to three years prior. Tomorrow thousands would arrive—something I could never begin to imagine—and yet, returning helped establish an intimacy with the landscape. There were magicians, a crowded arena for an ancient form of wrestling, tightrope walking, food stalls, storytellers, musicians, hats for sale, religious beggars, and the smell of lamb cooking. All day long buses, donkey carts, and taxis arrived carrying more people. After spending time at the edge of the desert in the midst of the festivities, people began the walk into the desert, stopping to pray at all the different markers along the way. There were many markers, and they were spread out. Some of the elderly were brought in by donkey cart, and camels were also available for those who needed a ride. Everywhere people could be seen burying themselves and others in the sand, a practice that is said to cure and prevent rheumatism and arthritis.
The work I produced while traveling with Rahilä had deepened, but the time with her only fanned my desire to return and continue developing this body of work. I made a conscious decision to remain apolitical, in large part because I wanted to respect and protect everyone with whom I worked. Religious sites on their own are fraught with controversy in the People’s Republic of China, and the politics of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are both intense and in many ways devastating. Modernization, change, and development are occurring at a rapid pace. My focus in both photographs and video has remained on the physical markers created in the landscape, markers that have defined and identified Uyghur culture for centuries. The other bodies of work I’ve been making are closely related but exist outside the holy sites. Rahilä’s students, with whom I’ve traveled, have been an incredibly valuable resource, and I believe and hope our work together has been a two-way exchange of learning across cultures and language. My collaborations with Rahilä and Alexandre continue to be fruitful, as described by Alexandre:
Rahilä and I, we felt that our scholarly explanations were not enough to understand what pilgrims experienced during pilgrimage. Lisa thought that historical or ethnographic knowledge was a necessary means to approach the holy places, both concretely and intellectually. The photographer could expose the silent side of religious life, while the scholar could put some words on mysterious facts and deeds.
The three of us are working on a book together that will be published in France in 2013. Last summer, Alex and I were able to return to Xinjiang together and meet with Rahilä in Urumchi. Although my work exists primarily outside of academia, participation in a recent symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled “Shamans, Buddhists and Muslim Saints: The Layered History of the Desert Mazâr,” confirmed for me the rich relationship that is developed when working across disciplines.
Lisa Ross was born in Brooklyn, New York and lives in New York City. She has an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University and an MA in education. Ross taught at Columbia University and spent a decade teaching photography to youth in New York City, where she pioneered an alternative photography and video program at the Harvey Milk School and Hetrick-Martin Institute. Ross was a fellow of the Bronx Museum AIM program and a recipient of the Hayward Prize through the American Austrian Foundation. Her work was featured in the Rencontres D’Arles Festival in France and has been shown in Switzerland, Algeria, the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. Ross has also had numerous solo exhibitions, most recently in New York City and at the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has received favorable reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York Magazine. In 2013, a monograph of Ross’s work will be published by The Monacelli Press and a solo exhibition, Living Shrines of Uyghur China, will be on view at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, February 8-July 8.
Website: http: www.studiolisaross.com