SOAS University of London

SOAS exhibits traditional shrines of Western China at Brunei Gallery

27 March 2014

Photographs and videos of tradition shrines in Uyghur in Western China by artist Lisa Ross will be exhibited at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, University of London next month.

Living Shrines: Uyghur Manifestations of Faith, Saints and Islam in Western China, curated by Jolaine Frizzell, will opens on 4 April until 21 June.

The sites, known as mazârs, are not only devotional but also encompass personal prayers and are home to various offerings, including the remains of sacrificial animals or dolls left by women praying for children.

Sufis believe the earth of the mazârs is suffused with faith. Sacred markers reach skyward and express individual invocations, honour saints, or denote burials. It is believed that saints, in a state of eternal sleep, help the deceased transition into the afterlife by functioning as conduits to Allah for the living and the dead.

The Living Shrines exhibition pic
Unrevealed, Site 4 "Coloured Cribs", 2009. Painted buriel markers are protected by a stand of poplar trees

Ross, who worked in and around the Taklamakan Desert of China’s far northwest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, brings into focus the desert shrines to Sufi saints and Muslim pilgrimage sites of the Uyghur religion.

Ross’s photographic work unveils the meditative and spiritual power of the Uyghur landscape, as well as a sense of the sacred with which it is imbued; this power manifests itself in the incandescent glow of the various religious sites, as if they had been lit by another sun.

Collaborating with Uyghur folklorist Rahile Dawut and French historian Alexandre Papas, Ross returned several times to the area and witnessed much alteration in the religious landscape throughout her journeys to Xinjiang, ending with her last visit in 2011.

Beth Citron, assistant curator at the Rubin Museum of Art writes: “Like the religious pilgrim, but coming from a much greater distance, the artist travelled to and through these sites, on a deliberate journey invested with its own set of rites, relationships, and the creation of meaning.

“Ross has captured the critical decade in which the social and political context around these mazârs changed, making both their continuance and these images all the more meaningful.” Living Shrines becomes an important archive of collective memory, histories of faith, and the perseverance of a culture facing great change.”

The book Living Shrines of Uyghur China – Photographs by Lisa Ross, published in 2013 by the Monacelli Press, accompanies the exhibition with essays by Beth Citron, Rahila Dawut and Alexandre Papas.