Suddenly, as she walked, a number of unfamiliar markers made out of sticks, cloths, animal skeletons and other objects, appeared in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The American photographer Lisa Ross stood in front of the Uyghur people’s holy sites. During a decade she returned annually in order to document, attempting to understand the meaning, and absorb the feeling, of these objects. It became her spiritual and creative pilgrimage.
These holy sites were created by one of China’s 56 officially recognised ethnicities, the Uyghur people, who through history have left a lasting imprint on both culture and tradition.
Lisa Ross’ photographs depict shrines that have a central role in the history, oral tradition and collective memory of the Uyghur people. Every holy site marks a personal prayer: a woman’s wish for a child, a desire for domestic harmony, or the healing of illness.
Despite the absence of people the images feel like intimate portraits. There is a relationship between the people who created the shrines, the people who have passed by and the people who have looked after them. “That’s what I want to evoke with my images,” Ross explains. “I have tried to capture both the fragility and the strength of these works.”
The Chinese government has designated the Uyghur shrines as “cultural property”, officially undercutting their religious function and promoting their identity as tourist attractions, eager to control the oil and gas-rich region. That means that the future is uncertain. In Lisa Ross’ images this rich and unique cultural heritage lives on, remaining what it was supposed to be.
Lisa Ross is a New York-based photographer and video artist. In addition to her ten-year project in the Xinjiang region, she has also worked in North Africa, Central Asia, China, Europe and Azerbaijan. Lisa Ross has an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Today she is Adjunct Professor at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Her work has been presented at the University of California at Berkeley; Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival: the Rubin Museum of Art in New York; University of London, SOAS; Brunei Gallery and La Vieille Charité in Marseille. Her photographs are also available in the book “Living Shrines of Uyghur China”.