A strange planet many, many light years away

Photographer Theo Santana has walked the earth freely but never encountered the level of security checks and surveillance like in China’s Xinjiang. Through Theo’s lens, we see in great detail what anthropologist Ann Stoler describes a “[ruination]… persists in material debris, in ruined landscape, and through the social ruination of people’s lives.” To many locals and exiled people who bear witness to this present day, Xinjiang has become a strange, desolate planet where they themselves have become aliens.

Many, many light years away, in a place that you call home, now there is a strange planet filled with industrial plants, plastic bodies, and imperial troopers.

A police walks up to an empty mosque
This is an otherworldly image, almost like a storm trooper on patrol on one of the empire’s colonial outposts
Rebecca Onion writes in her political history of barbed wire for Slate: “[F]armers and ranchers interested in buying knew that they could keep Native Americans, black people, children, beasts owned by others, and poor people out with the new invention.” In this Uyghur village, barbed wire becomes the first thing one sees rather than mosques or neighbor’s houses. They have become prisoners of the state.

Read more here. Shared with the photographer’s permission (Sep 14, 2019).

Yangisar’s autophotography

When I first saw this autophotography by Yangisar, I suddenly remembered a book title “The Plaint of the Hunter Above the Abyss”—a book dialogue between renowned Kyrgyzstan author Chingiz Aitmatov and Kazakhstan author Mukhtar Shakhanov, partly because in the picture Yangisar is literally standing on the top of abyss, looking particularly precarious, hands up in the air, blindfolded, without any support.

It was incredibly coincidental that this is indeed a cliff on the mountains along the borders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Yangisar asked his friend to take this photo of him. Underneath the dark head cover, his face faces east—his ancestral homeland East Turkestan—a place that is today officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

As a member of the persecuted Turkic peoples born in this region, I was most immediately connected to Chingiz Aitmatov and Mukhtar Shakhanov’s dialogue on the survival stories of their families during Stalin’s purges in 1936. First published in 1998, the book was popular among post-Soviet Central Asian readers seeking an intelligent discussion on roots, national identity, and Soviet legacy. Many years later, Chingiz Aitmatov passed away, while Mukhtar Shakhanov continues to symbolize Kazakhstan national literature and language, however bounded by the border. The same person who lamented the Soviet persecution has signed a letter to advocate shutting down the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Group in Kazakhstan—the world’s only organization documenting the abuse of Xinjiang Kazakhs.

Yangisar on the abyss poses questions for the people who are forced into an exiled, stateless life, a life in which everyday existence is precarious and uncertain just like in this picture. His questions echo in the mountains: In the times when darkness is devouring our world, does he feel utterly helpless? Does he feel unable to change anything? Does he give up and surrender? Or even worse? Does he choose indifference for a certain amount of comfortability?  

Witnessing The Diversity Of The Modern Absurdities, by Yangisar
Shared with artist’s permission (Sep 17, 2019).

Artivist Badiucao’s chilling images of Xinjiang camp

Badiucao is a popular and prolific political artist from China. He directly confronts a variety of social and political issues in his work. He uses his art to challenge censorship and dictatorship in China. His work was used by Amnesty International, Freedom House, BBC, CNN and China Digital Times and exhibited in Australia, America, and Italy. He believes history is constantly being unified, tampered with, and even forgotten when free speech and democracy are absent. His art is a record of his personal perspective on social issues, used to confront the official record. He believes art and the internet have the power to deconstruct the arrogance and authority of dictatorship as building blocks of individual awakening and independence.

Badiucao created the work titled “Xinjiang Auschwitz” on the 10th anniversary of the “7.5 Incident” which happened in Xinjiang in 2009—a violent clash broke out after long-term ethnic tensions came to a head, and was also a turning point for massive police surveillance and securitization of Xinjiang (read more here). He notes, “I used the gate of Auschwitz as a reference for cultural genocide against Uyghur Muslims in China. I know every pain in history is different and I am not doing this to dilute the tragedy of the Jewish people. I’m trying to remind the world how evil China’s genocide is.” In this piece, he used Chinese traditional painting elements—an art form that is often chosen to symbolize China. He hopes to reclaim it from nationalistic political representations and create new meanings through his political art.

Another of Badiucao’s work, “China’s Doctor of Death,” is inspired by an actual leaked photo from a concentration camp in Xinjiang (see here). This artwork is used as an illustration for Tim Grose’s article on ChinaFile: “‘Once Their Mental State Is Healthy, They Will Be Able to Live Happily in Society’: How China’s Government Conflates Uighur Identity with Mental Illness.” Badiucao’s work is an excellent visualization of how government policy aims to re-engineer Uyghur minds.

Shared with artist’s permission (Sep 14, 2019)

Bloodied like a pomegranate

There is a vast difference between Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, including differences in geography, demography, history, cultural linguistics… the list goes on; we also know so little about each other, living in a paternalistic state that filters information for us all the time. Visiting is also physically challenging with various security clearances and permission paperwork, even for PRC citizens. Today, the perceived commonality between these places is more apparent under state violence, and we see increasing gestures of solidarity to advocate for each other’s plight.

Here is a Taiwanese friend’s reminder for people who are privileged to celebrate Mid-Autumn Day festival with their family members. Though some disagree by saying Tibetans and Uyghurs don’t celebrate this traditional Chinese festival, or problematize the politically charged word “unity,” these posters are visceral and empathic. Bloody eyes are a direct result of police brutality in Hong Kong and experiencing inhumane treatment in Xinjiang and Tibet. A few very prevalent propaganda slogans in Xinjiang (very often written on bloody red banners all over public space), go like this: “All ethnic group embrace each other tightly like pomegranate seeds,” or “Please protect ethnic unity like you would protect your eyes.” However, when the “ethnic integration” (民族融合) comes after suppressive assimilation like Xinjiang and Tibet, the pomegranate seeds bleed and turn to gunk. Borrowing Fatimah Seyyah‘s poetic line, “bloodied like a pomegranate,” I share this Taiwanese artist’s empathic work.

“Remember there are many people who cannot reunite with their loved ones, there are many people who are drowning in pain and struggle… those who are arrested for no reason. —- Stand with Hong Kong.
“Also, those who have been disappeared… We cannot forget them, because one day we might become them. We hold democracy and freedom and hope one day we can all reunite with our families. —- Uyghur Human Rights.
“And those who are forced into exiled life, those who put themselves on fire for ideals. —- Free Tibet.”

Indonesian artist Muhagant’s illustration

Artist Muhagant contributed this piece titled “Free… we want free.” Muhagant read a lot about Xinjiang human rights crisis on social media since Indonesian national TV seldom reports on it. He presents this illustration in solidarity with Uyghur struggle today. In our correspondence he told me, this picture shows the sadness on the countenance of Uyghurs and the wound of discrimination they receive. The tears are unstoppable because the freedom is stolen from them.

Muhagant said: “You have to know, in Indonesia we stand together with Uyghurs, Palestinians, Syrians, and Rohingya Muslims, even though mainstream media don’t always do so.” Original post see here. Shared with artist’s permission (Sep 13, 2019).

Shimizu Tomomi’s Art Testimony

Artist Shimizu Tomomi (清水ともみ) rendered Mihrigul Tursun‘s testimony given at US Congressional hearing in Manga form. Mihrigul’s testimony gave accounts of various torture and gender based violence inside one of the ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. Shimizu Tomomi’s art testimony for Mihrigul Tursun is an important addition to this documentation project, as it shows us the situated knowledge of the intimate, subjective, and deep dimension of horror in China’s concentration camps, which is everything that state power desperately tries to hide from the public. See more here. Shared with artist’s permission (Sep 10, 2019).

Creative artworks by diaspora Uyghur artists

Originally published on Darren Byler’s blog: Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. Shared with author and artists’ permission (Sep 8, 2019).

T-shirt design by an anonymous friend of Xinjiang

T-shirt is an effective way to promote the cause and add visibility both online and offline. An anonymous friend of Xinjiang designed this T-shirt to address the issue of China’s resource extraction in Xinjiang. Besides the cotton and oil industries, Xinjiang produces more than 70% of China’s tomatoes. The massive paramilitary organization, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), established in the 1950s, engaged in large scale land reclamation and facilitated an increasing ethnic Han population influx into the region. It also plays an active role in operating many of the re-education camps at the moment. Tomato production is controlled by XPCC’s Tunhe Corporation. One fourth of the world’s tomato paste comes from Xinjiang.

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