Exhibition: Elegy to a Uyghur Dreamscape قەسىدە: ئۇيغۇرنىڭ ئۇيقۇسىز چۈشلىرى

Exhibition-Elegy to a Uyghur Dreamscape

A new photography exhibition at Harvard University depicts everyday life in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region. The photographs, taken by Lisa Ross, depict beds and their occupants outside in the open air. Sleeping outdoors is a traditional means to keep cool in the hot desert climate for many Uyghurs, Xinjiang’s Muslim-majority ethnic group. This way of life, however, is rapidly disappearing under the Chinese government’s mass detentions of many of the region’s residents.

This exhibition is on display from February 25 to March 29, 2020 [edited Mar. 19: now on display through April 30, 2020], in the Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA. [edited Mar. 19: Please note that the CGIS South Building is currently closed and inaccessible. Check the Harvard Asia Center website for information on its reopening].

The exhibition is sponsored by the Harvard University Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and the Harvard Asia Center Arts Initiative; with support from the Provostial Fund Committee, Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities

Xinjiang is a region in western China that stretches from Mongolia to the Tibetan plateau, and from the Pamirs to Gansu province, forming the borderland of the People’s Republic of China with the states of Central Asia. While the lands comprising modern Xinjiang were joined together formally into a single territory only in the mid-18th c., during the Qing dynasty (CE 1636–1911), the region has for millennia enjoyed deep connections both with China and with the rest of Eurasia, involving religion, art, music, and food, as well as technology, diplomacy, conquest, and trade.

Buddhism was the dominant religion in what is now southern Xinjiang (Altishahr, also called eastern Turkestan) for most of the first millennium CE. As the result of a gradual process of Islamization beginning in the 9th and 10th centuries, the region has long been home to a large Muslim population that today includes Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Dongxiang, and Hui, as well as the inhabitants of the oasis cities ringing the Taklamakan Desert, the people who call themselves Uyghurs. Numbering around ten million, Uyghurs are the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang, and makeup approximately 43% of the population. The next largest group is the Han Chinese, who account for about 40% of those living in Xinjiang, almost all in the major cities.

The photographs by Lisa Ross displayed in this exhibition provide a moving, if disturbing, view of life for Uyghurs today. These photos were taken just before the new so-called anti-terrorist policies in Xinjiang were first being implemented. While past decades have witnessed periods of ethnic and political tension, government policies of the last two years have restricted the religious and personal freedoms of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang to an unprecedented degree. In addition to shuttering mosques, closing schools, and bulldozing cemeteries, authorities have used extralegal means to detain an unknown number of people — perhaps as many as one million or even more — and to hold them for indefinite periods in one of the dozens of newly-built concentration camps, officially known as “re-education centers.” Though they do not stand accused of any crime, inmates at these facilities are unable to leave or to communicate with family and are subject to extensive questioning and political indoctrination.

Few Uyghur families have been left untouched by this campaign. Those outside the camps have seen their cultural practices criminalized, their movements incessantly tracked, and their very homes and bedrooms colonized temporarily by Chinese families who have been moved in as part of a government program that is ostensibly directed toward building ethnic harmony.

This exhibition offers the viewer the chance to reflect on the “new normal” in Xinjiang and to think about the meanings of “home.” Taken over many years, these portraits — mainly of women and children — dramatize the impact of detentions in thousands of households where loved ones have been taken away for no one knows how long. They stand by or sit on, beds, but beds that have been removed from normal interiors and placed instead outdoors: on a road, in a field, next to a pile of bricks. Torn out of context, these beds offer little promise of rest. Surrounded by colorful sheets and blankets, many of them of native design, the figures in these photographs inhabit a dystopian dreamscape, the scenes symbolic of the uprooting of a people and a culture that is happening in real-time, right before our eyes.

The richness of Harvard’s intellectual depth in Chinese studies allows us to see China in its myriad forms, including the history, culture, language, and politics of its diverse peoples and regions. This exhibition is an important addition to our classes, lectures, and educational outreach about the current distressing situation in Xinjiang, which poses dramatic challenges not just to Uyghurs, but to people everywhere in China and around the world. In times of crisis, when words are often inadequate, art and photography can best respond to the human need for expression and catharsis. We hope that this exhibition may meet those needs and remind us all of the fragility of the freedoms we enjoy every day.



Lisa Ross is a New York-based photographer, video artist, and educator. She received an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught at the Parsons School of Design, Columbia University, and the Harvey Milk School. Ross has worked on photography projects in North Africa, Central Asia, China, Europe, and Azerbaijan and has exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe.


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