Lisa Ross is a New York-based photographer, video artist and educator. Her latest body of work I Can’t Sleep: Homage to a Uyghur Homeland, features a series of group portraits of women and children on their beds, outdoors, during the day. Taken in Turpan, in Xinjiang, the project began in 2002 with a series of photo collections focused on Uighur homelands and sacred sites, to be completed in 2011.
Her first Xinjiang photo series Living Shrines in Uyghur China did not feature any people. “The absence of the human figures was essential in permitting the viewer to enter the photograph and connect to the ritual objects and landscapes,” she told HKFP, adding she was not sure whether it was safe to show Uighurs in western media.
But in I Can’t Sleep: Homage to a Uyghur Homeland, the human figure is prominent in each photograph. The beds are positioned in open, dry fields, and remain exactly where they were slept on by their owners, Ross said, adding that it is a tradition in Turpan for people to sleep outdoors during hot summer months.
“Farmers whose job it is to oversee the drying of raisins work on arid, barren hills and often sleep where they are working even though their homes may not be near,” she said. “This explains why the beds in these photographs often have an otherworldly and dreamlike feel to them and why I was initially attracted to them.”
Ross said the work intends to provoke the questions: who are Uighurs, and what are their traditions?
“These basic questions are urgent right now as Uighur history and culture are being destroyed,” she said. “Mosques and holy sites are being razed by the government. Over 500-year-old structures are disappearing like the 1.5 million Uighurs who have been placed in concentration camps, while academics and artists are being arrested for the work they were once rewarded for.”
“My dear friend, Rahile Dawut, PhD., ran the Folklore Department at Xinjiang University. She has been missing for over a year and a half now and, to the best of our knowledge, she was never given a trial,” Ross added.
Xinjiang is populated predominantly by Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, targetted in what Beijing claims to be a campaign to tackle unrest and separatism. The UN says a million Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained in extralegal “political reeducation camps,” while Human Rights Watch reports that surveillance and repression in Xinjiang has increased dramatically since 2016.
Ross has worked in North Africa, Central Asia, China, Europe and Azerbaijan. She received an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been exhibited in the US and Europe. In 2018 she was an artist in residence at View Art Gallery in Lanzhou, China.
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