Exploring History, Faith, and Photography with Queens College students

Allison Austin, University Programs intern and Teaching Assistant for a Queens College course taught by Dr. Morris Rossabi this past spring, gave Dr. Rossabi’s students a gallery tour of Lisa Ross’s exhibition, Living Shrines of Uyghur China (February 8 2013-July 8, 2013). After the tour, we asked Allison to share some thoughts about the experience:

This spring, I had the pleasure of attending Professor Morris Rossabi’s Queens College class on Mongols and Global History. As the Education intern for University Programs and Partnerships, I previously had the opportunity to serve as Teaching Assistant for other Asian Studies survey courses taught at the Museum, but I was particularly excited to learn about an Asian country about which I had limited knowledge.

I was delighted that the exhibition Living Shrines of Uyghur China, with photographs taken by Lisa Ross, coincided with the timing of the course because it allowed me the opportunity to develop curricular connections between the course, which focused on the development of the Uyghurs in inner Asia, and the exhibition. Professor Rossabi and Laura Lombard both encouraged me to develop and lead a tour for the class.

During the gallery visit, I asked the students to consider our progression through the gallery as if we were embarking on a pilgrimage similar to the annual religious treks taken by the Uyghurs who are Sufi Muslims. Together, the class and I, explored ways that the photos evoked a contemplative attitude. Initially, the students remained timid about engaging in conversation about the photography. This feeling appeared to stem from their awe of the photographs, which have a powerful presence.

Soon, their reticence subsided, and they began to describe how they were struck by the power and beauty of the images.  When I asked them to elaborate on their connections or responses to the photographs, they commented on the organic process of creating the shrines that are made from pieces of wood, strips of cloth, plants, and feathers, as well as the sense of spontaneity of the mazars (shrines), the dedication of the Uyghurs to these sites, and the deep sense of community of living beings who honor the memory of the Muslim saints represented by the shrines.

It was pleasure to share my insights and passion of contemporary photographs of these sacred burial places with the Queens College students. I was delighted to hear their personal perceptions and understandings of Lisa Ross’s photographs. Our exchanges encouraged an awareness of a community and culture steeped in an ethereal, beautiful, and honorable tradition, one that illuminates a distinct and resilient perspective very much at odds with the violence sometimes associated with the Uyghur Autonomous Region. The shrines serve as living testaments to the enduring spiritual strength of the Uyghurs, whose mazars straddle the temporal and the eternal, reminding us of the great dichotomy of life and death, matter and spirit. – Allison Austin 

Morris Rossabi is Senior Research Scholar and Adjunct Professor of Inner Asian History at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor of History in the Asian Studies program at Queens College. His Mongols and Global History course at the Rubin Museum examined the history of the Mongols, not only the conquests of Genghis Khan, Khubilai Khan and their successors, but also their impact on the political, economic, religious, cultural, and artistic histories of Eurasia, focusing on China, Russia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.

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