The Curious Desert Memorials of Western China

Unrevealed, Site 2 (Red Masthead), by Lisa Ross. All images courtesy the artist.
"Unrevealed, Site 2 (Red Masthead)" by Lisa Ross. (all images courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

LOS ANGELES — In cities across the US, I’ve driven by them: roadside memorials to slain cyclists and motorists. What’s striking to me about the memorials is how colorful they are, with ticker tape and, photos and tributes — a striking contrast to most urban landscapes.

Ram's Head, 2011. Click to enlarge.
"Ram's Head" (2011) (click to enlarge)

Deep in western China, in the deserts of Xinjiang Province, artist Lisa Ross photographed colorful memorials of a different sort, and she’s showing them this month at UC Berkeley. The area she visited is home to Uyghurs, people who speak a Turkic language and practice Islam. Their burial sites in the desert leap colorfully against the dry backdrop.

“Even though I did not see anyone that afternoon,” Ross told me in an email interview regarding her first visit. “The human presence was immense, both the individual and the collective memory.”

She mentions the first time she came across these markers:

The initial inspiration was just being there, in the middle of the desert and coming upon what I now know as a historic and highly venerated pilgrimage site. That day I walked along infinite sand dunes under a vast blue sky when I began to see spots of color and then wooden cribs cresting the dunes, then colorful flags on tall poles flapping in the wind. On one hand they seemed like skeletons of boats on a sea that had dried up, yet, in their stillness they were so alive. Rams skulls and sheepskins at times replaced the flags high above. All of this slowly revealed itself as I made my way through the desert landscape.

The markers she photographed indicate where a saint or family member is buried. Family and people passing through leave mementos. Women, Ross pointed out, might leave handmade dolls, while others might leave amulets, dolls or bright strips of cloth.

The series was begun in 2002, and I had the pleasure of seeing them in person during a studio visit when I was living in New York. Ross tells me she started the project after some time in North Africa, where she saw “forms of Islam that was very different from what media had shown.”

Black Garden (An Offering), 2009.
"Black Garden (An Offering)" (2009)

After September 11, she traveled to Xinjiang to document Islamic practices there and “show this other form of Islam, influenced by Sufism, that was so different from what I’d known.” The area has historically played an important role along the Silk Road and today borders numerous countries and cultures such as Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent months, it has been a site of numerous riots.

“I like when the work raises questions and inspires viewers to learn more about Xinjiang, the Uyghurs, the history, etc.,” she says. “The politics affecting the Uyghurs are complex. It’s good if the work helps one more person become curious to learn.”

Lisa Ross’s Desert Mazar: Sacred Sites in Western China opened yesterday and runs till June 1 at the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley (2223 Fulton Street, 6th Floor, Berkeley, California). On April 24, she will be joining a panel discussion about Desert Mazar.

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