Over the past year we have continued write about the ways in which the people who live in Chinese Central Asia find ways to tell their stories and create meaning in their lives. Despite the precariousness of life under Xi Jinping’s “People’s War on Terror,” there have been many new developments in contemporary art, film and photography. At the same time Uyghurs have continued to draw on their traditions to find strength and meaning in the present in Xinjiang and around the world.
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As social scientists since Pierre Bourdieu have noted, people with disposable incomes purchase forms of distinction by cultivating a sense of taste in what they consume. Middle class Uyghurs perform their distinctiveness as high-class Uyghurs by eating Uyghur-style Turkish food in uniquely non-Chinese spaces. They go to these restaurants to be seen by other Uyghurs. In an iteration of capitalist development around the world, new upscale restaurants are becoming sites of “conspicuous consumption.”
Writing about his 2013 project “Burial Ground,” Uyghur photographer Ali K. said his original intention was “to create a cautionary visual representation of customs that had not yet fallen to the wayside.” He wanted to note the way the many phenomena of Uyghur faith remain embedded in the present life practices of urban Uyghurs. His sense was that many practices, particularly in burial, are related to quite ancient ideas about the way “the earth is the source of meaning.”
When I viewed and talked about the book with groups of Han photographers many of them noted the way Drake mixed high and low forms of art in the book. The images by Uyghur portrait photographers appended to the back cover of the book struck them as particularly interesting. “Why did she include these?” they asked.
Initially many Uyghurs were excited about the Uyghur photographer Qurbanjan Semet’s book-length photo essay I am from Xinjiang on the Silk Road. At first they were thrilled to see Qurbanjan’s national primetime interview on CCTV News. They were astonished to see it be translated into English (by Wang Chiying) and sold alongside Xi Jinping’s boilerplate biography at Book Expo America. They wanted to know why people as famous and distant as the movie star Jackie Chan and novelist-turned-harmony-spokesperson Wang Meng were singing its praises. But when they actually had a chance to look at it they were often disappointed.
Many smart, well-educated Uyghur men fail to see the ways in which gender inequality is being produced. It is precisely because of this lack of awareness that Memetjan made a new film titled “Dad, I Love You” (English subtitles). Set in Ürümchi, the film shows us how urban fathers and husbands sometimes fail to prioritize their time in a way that supports their family. Using a realist (if, at the end, slightly melodramatic) narrative it shows us how men often don’t listen to what their children and wives are telling them. It shows us the effects of this domestic disfunction.
In the short film Rahime, the Uyghur ethnomusicologist and filmmaker Mukaddas Mijit portrays a moment in the life of her grandmother. When she was coming up with the theme for the short film, Mukaddas was feeling dismayed by the many events happening in the world around her. Since she herself was born in an Islamic culture, she felt it her obligation to frame that world in a way to give voice to the humanity and wisdom of that world. She felt that her 88 year-old grandmother could do this by drawing out the richness of her knowledge of Sufi mysticism.
The first Uyghur contemporary art exhibition opened at the Xinjiang Contemporary Art Museum on May 16. The opening was attended by several hundred people from across the province, including most of the represented artists. Since the majority of the painters were teachers or professors, many leading administrators from local universities were also present. Aside from them and a few Han painters from local art schools that the museum’s leading curator, Zeng Chunkai, had invited for the opening, nearly everyone was Uyghur. Even a famous Uyghur public intellectual, Yalkun Rozi, came and praised the artists – although he clearly didn’t understand contemporary art.
One of the emerging trends among young Uyghur film directors is a new attention to documentary filmmaking. This approach has long been a part of Uyghur cinema, but previously it was often part of a larger public relations presentation sponsored by the Chinese Culture Ministry. These new documentary short films are independently produced on limited budgets by young filmmakers who have an intimate knowledge of their subjects.
A recent Uyghur-language short film called Dream From the Heart (English and Chinese subtitles) tells the story of a group of boys from Qaraqash, a county of more than half a million people in Southern Xinjiang. Shot as part of China Southern Airlines’s new ad campaign by the award-winning director Zhang Rongji (张荣吉), the film references the true stories of how self-taught and underfunded young people from the deep poverty of Hotan and Kashgar prefectures struggle to compete with more privileged opponents.
Back in April signs of the famous Uyghur restaurant chain Herembağ (Eden/海尔巴格) began to appear on the streets of San Francisco. A few months later, a location in Fremont was opened in a renovated hot pot restaurant with promises of a third Bay-area location in San Mateo. Like their restaurant locations from Beijing to Astana, Kazakhstan, the American version of Eden serves an upscale version of the traditional Uyghur pasta, lamb and rice dishes, as well as Hui-inspired northwest specialties such as Big Plate Chicken (dapanji) and Turkish-style döner kebab. To understand how Herembağ has the ambition and resources to open 20 new restaurants in North America, you have to understand how it transformed Uyghur food culture in Xinjiang.