Pigeon Hole: Carolyn Drake’s Photography of China’s Uyghurs

An SFMOMA exhibit on a persecuted minority challenges photojournalism's emphasis on separation between artist and subject.

Like other geographically remote areas — central Congo, eastern Yemen, and eastern Myanmar — China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region cycles through the news because of one thing: bloodshed. China’s conflict stems from the government’s repression of the region’s majority-Muslim people known as Uyghurs, with news photos from the region typically showing Chinese soldiers with weapons patrolling the streets, Uyghur people circling near mosques, and Uyghurs (pronounced “ooy-goors”) who’ve been killed or put in so-called re-education camps.

Photographer Carolyn Drake upends this narrative, and the result is an indelible SFMOMA exhibit, “Wild Pigeon,” that shows what happens when an outsider makes a leap of faith and involves the very people she was supposed to keep at a photographic distance. Drake gave Uyghurs her photos of them and some art supplies, and these men, women, and children remixed Drake’s images — drawing pictures on them, writing on the borders, and cutting them into collages. The results surprised Drake, who initiated the collaboration after adhering to a cardinal precept of photojournalism: Maintain objectivity, and maintain a separation between the surveyor and the surveyed.

For seven years, Drake traveled to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from Istanbul, where she lived.

“I was feeling more and more uncomfortable with this kind of documentary photography that I was engaged with, which is this traditional method of blending into the scenery and becoming a fly on the wall,” she tells SF Weekly. “This process of bringing prints and sitting down with people, and talking to them face-to-face about what could be done with them, was liberating. It felt more human to me — more like I was being present.”

Drake titled her project and exhibit after a Uyghur short story by Nurmuhemmet Yasin, whom Chinese authorities arrested after the story’s publication and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where they are presumed to have killed him.

“The understanding I have is that he’s dead,” Drake says, “but there’s no official documentation of the fact that he’s dead.” The book that accompanies the third-floor exhibit (and which is displayed there for people to read for free) features Yasin’s Wild Pigeon story, an emotionally wrenching piece that uses birds as metaphors for the way that Uyghurs are jailed, killed, and subjected to Chinese government crackdowns.

In the story, which China has banned, authorities put the main pigeon in a cage — exposed enough that he can see his mother outside the bars but trapped so that he can’t do much of anything else.

“This cage is supremely clever in its cruelty,” the pigeon says in the story’s narration, which scholar Dolkun Kamberi translated into English. “Whoever designed such a device was truly an iron fist with the blackest of hearts — determined to immobilize small creatures such as me even though I can bring them no conceivable benefit.” The main pigeon chooses death rather than being “forced to live like a slave.”

Drake’s book includes reproductions of photos on exhibit at SFMOMA, but to protect their identities, the book omits the names of the 23 artists who collaged and drew on the images. It’s dangerous to be a Uyghur in China — dangerous to practice their religion, dangerous to talk to foreign journalists, dangerous even to suggest that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region should be anything but under oppressive Chinese control.

In the Uyghur diaspora, many Uyghurs call the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region “Uyghuristan” or even “East Turkestan,” which reflects its ancient history as an independent nation with a Turkic-speaking populace that was of majority Uyghur descent. Nearby imperial powers — whether China or the former Soviet Union — have always coveted and tried to subject the region in various ways. Human Rights Watch has condemned China’s recent crackdowns, which have reportedly included the forced collection of DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood samples from all region residents between ages 12 and 65. For years, China has been populating the region with ethnic Han Chinese from outside the area.

The images on SFMOMA’s walls portray the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as a place where Uyghur life was being lived in all its dimensions. Drake photographed a Uyghur girl in school learning the alphabet, then returned a few years later with the image, on which the girl drew a horse, tree, school accessories, and four iterations of the Uyghur letter “A.” China has since shut down Uyghur-language schools.

Vivan Sundaram, Khajuraho #1, 1965. Photo by Jonathan Curiel.

Drake, whose honors include a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright fellowship, photographed Uyghur men on horseback riding across one of the region’s many magnificent deserts — to which a Uyghur added a moon overhead and a house that signifies stability. The Uyghur artist and his family had recently been forced to leave their own house in Kashgar, a major city that was also prominent on the ancient Silk Road that once connected East with West. Then there’s Drake’s photo of another desert area, this one with real pigeons flying overhead — but that also has drawn-in mountains, drawn-in cars, drawn-in pigeons, and drawn-in men.

The Uyghur artists included a man tortured by Chinese authorities, who’d been looking for the man’s son in the wake of 2009 riots in the region’s capital, Ürümqi, which led to hundreds of Uyghur arrests and disappearances. The renderings on Drake’s photo show the tortured man’s son fleeing to nearby mountains for safety. In an “intense” session, Drake interviewed the father in a room with four other Uyghur men, who also discussed Yasin’s Wild Pigeon story.

“The men took great risk meeting and speaking with me,” says Drake, whose book also features straightforward photos of Uyghur life without remixing. “I had to secretly follow one guy at a distance down the street and around curves to get to the meeting place so nobody would know we were together.”

Chinese authorities briefly detained Drake on her 2009 trip to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the aftermath of the Ürümqi riots, but as she tells SF Weekly in her phone interview, “It was a very tense time, and I was there on a Friday when people were coming out of the mosque and Uyghurs started marching in the street, and the area was infiltrated by military with machine guns, and they immediately shot and killed three men. I tried to take pictures, and that’s why I was detained. But I’m an American, and this is one thing I’ve realized over the years: There’s a lot of privileges that come with that, and most of the time there’s no danger that I’ll be incarcerated or killed like other people could be.”

Like Drake, who now lives in Vallejo, the Indian artist Vivan Sundaram tags photos with drawings and writing — but the drawing and writing are his own, and they’re from a period in the mid-1960s, when Sundaram was in his 20s and experimenting with artistic styles. And instead of Uyghur scenes, Sundaram tweaks the black-and-white photos of sacred, ancient Indian sculpture — turning them into funny, Pop Art-ish works that stand out for both their reverence and their irreverence.

Sundaram’s photos line a corridor of “Divine Bodies,” the Asian Art Museum exhibit that mixes historic art with modern pieces and, in the museum’s words, encourages art-goers “to ponder the power of transformation, the possibility of transcendence, and the relationship of the body to the cosmos.” Who says you can’t laugh as you transcend toward another state of being? In Sundaram’s playful works, like Khajuraho #1 from 1965, millennium-old Indian reliefs get darkened hair, sunglasses, suits and ties, and personalities. On top of Khajuraho #1, which Sundaram rearranged to feature a mod couple, Sundaram writes, “Hey honey, let’s get out of here fast, before they find out who we are.” One of India’s most venerated artists, Sundaram has delved into painting, sculpture, and other mediums, and is known for his heady experimentation.

Since the beginning of photography in the early-to-mid-1800s, artists have taken images and written and drawn on them — especially on the backs of the photos, to add context and other information, including names and dates. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a picture without any words is an unfinished picture, many artists say. The words, scribbles, and drawings on Drake’s and Sundaram’s photos break with convention in an analog way — an old-fashioned mirroring of newish internet programs and mobile apps that let users reframe any image with their own writing, scrawls, or “premade” emojis and images. Drake and Sundaram improvised. What we see on the third floor at SFMOMA and the first floor at the Asian Art Museum are scenes plucked from people’s imaginations. They’re dreams of “make believe” that can be understood for their larger implications or simply appreciated for the small ways that they alter reality and make it more meaningful.

The dreams of China’s Uyghurs have been crushed since Drake last visited in 2013. But they’re there on the walls at SFMOMA. And on the ground there, where beautiful carpets feature dialogue from Wild Pigeon (like “my mother warned me”) that hint at the fate of millions of people. Drake and SFMOMA are effectively bringing the Uyghurs’ story — pictures and words — to a much bigger audience.

“Carolyn Drake: Wild Pigeon,” through Sept. 23 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25; 415-347-4000, sfmoma.org.

“Divine Bodies,” through July 29, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. $18-$25, 415-581-3500, asianart.org.

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