Field Impressions
Exhibition: Xinjiang’s secular modernities

Das Kamel in der Stadt

Secular modernities and Uighur Muslims in Western China: Impressions from rural and urban Xinjiang

Photographs by Ma Kang and Ablet Semet

This gallery invites a visual conversation between two photographers, Ma Kang and Ablet Semet, whose lives and work are intimately connected with the question of Uighur identities in a transregional Asia.

Ma Kang is a Hui-Chinese photographer and visual essayist based in Nanjing. Born in the city in 1962, his work has engaged with the spatial and historical dialogues of urban architecture and people’s inner lives in contemporary, post-reform China. With early training in oil painting, Ma Kang became interested in photography in 1993 as a more satisfying medium for his creative expressions and aspirations, using photographs to critically reflect on, and play with, the “ways of seeing” at a point in time when faith and certainty seem particularly elusive for the majority of Chinese people. His work cycle “Uncertain Times” was shown in galleries in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hong Kong and in many cities around the world. Juxtaposed with the “crisis of faith”, Xinjiang has captured Ma Kang’s attention since 2003. “Although faith does not come easily there”, he notes, “it still exists”, providing a place for experiencing both dislocation and self-sufficiency. The works shown in this exhibition have been selected from Ma Kang’s most recent explorations on urban change and religiosity in Urumqi, Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang. Ma Kang’s distinctly urban perspective is in dialogue with Ablet Semet’s focus on rural spaces. In contrast to Ma Kang’s identity as an artist, Dr. Semet is a scholar and ethnographer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Göttingen. Born in Artush, near Kashgar, in 1969, and himself Uighur, he began his studies in Urumqi before reading Turkology at Minzu University in Beijing (formerly Central University for Nationalities) where he also lectured. After spending time in Ankara, he came to Germany and gained a doctorate in Turkology in Göttingen in 2003. His photographs document his research on the complex cultural encounters of language, literature and religious heritage, and speak to the difficult journeys into contemporary Uighur identity formation.

In this gallery, both portrait work and landscape photographs visually capture a moment of rapid and uncertain transformation in the lives of Uighur Muslims in Western China. As both religious group and ethnic minority, they highlight the conflicts within the secular Chinese state and its politics of nationalism and territorial integrity. However, as the photographs show, Uighur Muslims are also coming to terms with a more local aspect of secularism. Entangled in China’s reform process and official development strategies for the Western regions since 1999, their cities are undergoing radical, secular-driven modernisation processes, which signal the disappearance of inherited urban quarters, multi-religious architecture and vernacular ways of life. While drawing attention to Xinjiang’s multiple narratives of modernity and its contested sites of belonging, Ma Kang and Ablet Semet bring their own biographical entanglements into the spaces and stories of this transformation in order to highlight a personal visuality of affect and intimacy beyond the larger frame of state power.

Curators: Katja Pessl and Tina Schilbach

Old Town, Kashgar, September 2009.
Picture taken from the roof of Jianshe Jituan Building.

Photo: Ma Kang

Uighur Courtyard House, Khotan (Hotan), 2010.

Photo: Ma Kang

Camels at Lake Dong Hu in Kashgar, August 2010. While the camels would once be waiting to begin their trek along the Silk Road, they are now being sold to butchers at Yengi Bazar (New Bazar), Central Asia’s biggest camel market.

Photo: Ma Kang

Uighur house in Kashgar, in a state of demolition. When this photo was taken in September 2010, already half the house was gone.

Photo: Ma Kang

An old man in ruins collecting bricks, Kashgar, May 2009.

Photo: Ma Kang

Yan’an Street, Urumqi, July 2010.

The slogan on the wall reads “Building a harmonious society, constructing a peaceful capital”.

Photo: Ma Kang

Two girls at Döng Köwrük-Bridge (Erdaoqiao). Urumqi, July 2007.

Photo: Ma Kang

Children at play. Kashgar, August 2004.

Photo: Ma Kang

Uighur tea house (Chayhana) in Kashgar, August 2013

Photo: Ma Kang

Modern Uighur tea house near the popular residential area of Östängboyi in Kashgar, August 2013.

Photo: Ma Kang

A small bazaar in Sanshhangzi in Ürümqi 2012. Sanshihangza und Döng Köwrük (Erdaoqiao) are the Uighur trade districts in Ürümqi.

Photo: Ablet Semet

A Uighur bakery in Turfan, 2012.

Photo: Ablet Semet

A new Buddhist Temple, built on Qizil tagh (“Red Mountain”) in Urumqi, 2012.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Smog fills the modern city. Like many cities in China, Urumqi is also suffering from air pollution. Urumqi, 2006.

Photo: Ablet Semet

A cemetry in the city centre of Qomul, 2013.

Many old cemeteries in the city have disappeared to make space for new housing. This is one of the few to still exist but it has also become smaller over the years. An old mausoleum, a sacred site, is visible in the background but has been closed to visitors and has not been renovated for a long time.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Remainders of a mausoleum on a cemetery in Astana, Turfan, 2010.

Photo: Ablet Semet

On the way to home. A farmer is returning home after selling melon. In the background is the abandoned historical ruin of Ming öy, “Thousand Buddha Cave”. Between Korla and Qarashahr, 2010.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Traditional Uighur houses in Toyuq, Turfan, 2012.

Photo: Ablet Semet

An old mosque in Yarkant, 2008.

Although still an important pilgrimage site, the mosque has not been renovated for a long time. Like many mosques in Xinjiang it needs to meet strict official criteria for restoration.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Orda Padishahim Mazar, a sacred historic shrine located about 60km from Kashgar, in 2010. This site is allegedly the tomb of Arslanhan, the grandson of Satuq Bughrahan, who was the first Turkic king to convert to Islam in the 10th century. Traditionally a very important place in Uighur religious and cultural life, over 150,000 pilgrims came together to celebrate the Ordam festival in 1986. Since 1997, the site has been closed to visitors und is being slowly covered by dessert sand.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Ashabul Kaif „Holy Cave of the Seven Sleepers”, in Toyuq, Turfan, in 2012. According to legend, the surrounding caves have been home to seven saints sleeping here. Although the story goes back to Christian legend, the main parts of this mausoleum were originally Buddhist. Although an important pilgrimage site for both Uighur and Hui Muslims, it was opened as a tourist site in 2003 when a Han-Chinese tourist company bought the development rights to the entire Mazar Aldi village and began charging high entrance fees.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Until a decade ago, Qirmish Ata maziri (Shrine of Qirmih Ata) was an important pilgrimage site for Uighurs, who expressed their wishes by putting a prayer ribbon in the tree. The site has been transformed into a commercial tourist attraction with high entrance fees since the late 1990s when a Han-Chinese development company bought the management rights. Now many of the ribbons are sold to visitors with wishes in the Chinese language printed on them. The wooden plate reads “Thousand-year Holy Spring”. In Konashahr, Aqsu, 2008.

Photo: Ablet Semet

Nernasi, 2013. A small historic village in Qoomul, in the Tängritagh (Tianshan) region. For the past two years, the village residents have been ordered to resettle into the city. The local primary school – the only educational institution here – has long been closed. In 2006, hundreds of new fragments of the old Uighur Buddhist text “Maitrisimit” were found here. However, the area has also been known for its rich iron deposits. The local population believes that their resettlement will precede the opening up of this wealth.

Photo: Ablet Semet

A farm house in the village of Qoray, in the mountain region of Qomul, 2013.

Photo: Ablet Semet

The photographers

Ma Kang (self-portrait)

Ablet Semet (in Quray, Qoomul)

Contact

T: +49 551 39 21286
F: +49 551 39 21284
cetren@uni-goettingen.de

Location

Georg-Universität-Universität Göttingen
Heinrich-Düker-Weg 14
37073 Göttingen
Germany

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