Living Shrines of Uyghur China

art life

Though the Xinjiang region of Central China is a cultural crossroads of historic importance, outsiders have been generally denied access to the area since it was annexed by China in 1949. It is with great fortune that Lisa Ross was allowed to photograph its holy sites for over ten years, the results of which are collected in Living Shrines of Uyghur China (Monacelli Press), an exhibition of photographs at Harvard University in the Center for Government and International Studies, February 5 through April 5, 2015.

Ross’ photographs document the shrines created for and during pilgrimages by the Islamic people of Western China, many of which have been maintained over several centuries. Adorned with small devotional offerings that mark a prayer or visit, the shrines are a space where the sacred and profane connect, in the process becoming deeply felt reminders of collective memory and a peaceful faith. Despite vulnerability to the elements, the natural forces of the sand, heat, and winds that whip through the province, the shrines endure and become all the more beautiful for the way in which the temporal is transformed into a timeless marker of all those have come before.

It is in this way that Ross’ photographs echo the nature of the shrine itself, as the images become portals by which we transport ourselves to her side, along the desert floor, and we though can feel the elements all around us, we are safe in the care of the spirit world. The photographs embody the energy of the shrines, becoming an oasis, a place of protection, and an intermediary between two worlds. The images are powerful in their simplicity; the starkness of the shrines set against the harsh landscape becomes a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and its submission to the higher power that guides our steps.

Speaking of her early years in photography, Ross recalls, “I was 12 years old the first time I held an SLR. My mother placed it there; she was a painter and would make black-and-white photographs to work from. It was a Konica, large in my hands and completely manual. I’ll never forget that day as I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I found my thing.’ I had been looking for a form of expression early on. I dropped acting and guitar lessons. This art form, that for me was so solitary, came to fit my life.”


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