No. 576 . 06 March 2013 
ArchitectureWeek

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So far away in place & mind as to seem alien, and at the same time, so strongly evocative. Photo: Lisa Ross

Living Shrines of Uyghur China

by Lisa Ross

These photographs by artist Lisa Ross were taken at mazârs, Muslim sacred burial sites, in Uyghur China—known variously to different peoples as Xinjiang, East Turkestan, a stop on the Silk Road, Chinese Central Asia, or Uyghuristan.

This region has long been one of the world's great crossroads, with a cultural distinctiveness built from a history of hybridity. Indeed the vernacular, often-spontaneous sites that Ross has photographed suggest an experiential in-betweenness and a semblance to things and places found just beyond the expanse of the Taklamakan Desert: prayer flags from Tibet, wishing trees in Mongolia, and even the mundane, mass-produced acrylic silks littering China's towns.

On closer inspection, however, the distinctions of these mazârs—and those of Ross's work—begin to come into focus. — Beth Citron

The story of my relationship to mazârs (holy sites) is one of fate and possibly faith. With each step I took, another door opened. When people ask me, "How did you choose this?" the most suitable answer is: "It chose me." The truth is I had been feeling very drawn to deserts.

In the three years prior I had visited the Sahara twice and Sinai once. Often an artist will arrive at a place and it becomes their home, somewhere all of the channels open up and they find they can create freely without hesitation. The Taklamakan Desert and its surrounding oasis villages and cities became this for me.

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Vernacular design inspiration from central Asia. Photo: Lisa Ross

An Early Visit

Shao Ma was Hui, Chinese Muslim. He had begun to have a feeling for the kinds of landscapes that interested me, even though we had no language in common. He was quiet and thoughtful. He pointed into the desert. There seemed to be a footpath in the sand, forged by use over time. Following his nod, I walked in, over small sand dunes and then a large dune. Colors began to reveal themselves. In the distance I could see what looked like wooden cribs or rafts, cresting on dry land, animated by colored flags beating in the wind.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from Living Shrines of Uyghur China -or- Friends of God: Sufi Shrines in Western China by Lisa Ross, copyright © 2013, with permission of the publisher, Monacelli Press.

 
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