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Lisa Ross’s ethereal photographs of Islamic holy sites were created over the course of a decade on journeys to China’s Xinjiang region in Central Asia, historically a cultural crossroads but an area to which artists and researchers have generally been denied access since its annexation in 1949. These monumental images show shrines created during pilgrimages, many of which have been maintained continuously over several centuries; visitation to the tombs of saints is a central aspect of daily life in Uyghur Islam, and its pilgrims ask for intercession for physical, mental, and spiritual ailments. The shrines, adorned with small devotional offerings that mark a prayer or visit, are poignant representations of collective memory and a pacifistic faith, and endure despite vulnerability to natural forces of sand, heat, and powerful winds. Their simplicity and austerity as captured by Ross invoke ideas of spirituality, eternity, and transcendence.
Three essays–by a historian of Central Asian Islam, a Uyghur folklorist, and the curator of an accompanying exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art–situate the photographic content in context. This volume emerges at a critical time, as modernization and new policies for development of China’s far west bring about rapid, extreme, and irrevocable change; the region is its largest source of untapped natural gas, oil, and minerals. Many of the sites in Ross’s work are threatened by political and economic pressures–her images are valuable, therefore, not only for their intrinsic beauty, but as an important record of a rich and vibrant culture.
“Lisa Ross is a hunter and gatherer of rare grace. With the patience and resolve of a true pilgrim, she travels to impossible places and captures ephemeral notions (such as prayer, history, isolation, migration, hope, grief, longing, etc.). These notions, she transforms with a quiet alchemy into photographs that inhabit the viewer’s mind and soul forever. Quite simply, my admiration for this work has no bounds.” –Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“An awareness of transience lies at the heart of all devotion, and it finds an apt emblem in these grave markers, bent and tattered by the wind . . . In time, and not much time, [modernization] could transform Ms. Ross’s exquisite anthropological images of living monuments into documents of relics.” –Holland Cotter, The New York Times
“I have an obsession with saints and the desert, things that are bigger than we are. When I first saw Lisa’s work I was moved by the colors and beauty of the imagery, and learning where they were made and what concerned her made me even more impressed by their silence and serenity. Lisa found a place and really found a way to find herself in that place.” –Nan Goldin