Uyghurs in exile use art to fight cultural genocide in China — Radio Free Asia

Classical performing artist Shohret Tursun said he realized early on that his native Uyghur culture was on the brink of obliteration in Xinjiang, as he watched in horror as fellow musicians and other friends Uighurs being detained or disappeared by Chinese authorities as of 2017.

From his exile in Australia, Tursun has done his best to counter China’s efforts to obliterate Uyghur culture by creating artistic works that government policies could not destroy.

On September 2, 2018, he raised the curtains for the Twelve Muqam Festival at the Riverside Theater in Sydney, where he performed ‘Rak Muqam’, the first suite of ‘Twelve Muqam’, a quintessential Uyghur work that includes sung poetry , stories and dancing.

In doing so, Tursun perpetuates a thousand-year-old musical tradition. Until this day, muqam had never been performed on a major stage in Australia.

Tursun is part of a group of Uyghur artists, now living in different parts of the world, who are all working to preserve their identity and culture and bring more attention to the plight of their people.

A time of relentless darkness

Tursun, who plays several instruments including the Uyghur dutar and sattar, is joined by singer Rahima Mahmut in the UK and artist Gulnaz Tursun (no relation to Shohret Tursun) in Kazakhstan to use art to fend off a sense of hopelessness that permeates the Uyghur exile community.

The three expressed similar sentiments about the purpose of their works in interviews with RFA, saying it was their duty to instill hope and confidence in Uyghurs through their performances and artistic creations.

Shohret Tursun, who has lived in Australia since 1999, said he has dedicated his life to preserving and spreading cultural relics such as the “Twelve Muqam”, which is a symbol of the Uyghur nation. He has performed in Australia, Japan and other countries. His Australian Uyghur Muqam Ensemble’s performance in Sydney on July 20, 2019 was streamlined by Uyghurs around the world.

Mahmut sings mournful melodies from Xinjiang to give voice to speechless Uyghurs. And Gulnaz Tursun creates works of art on canvas to inspire Uyghur teenagers to hope for a brighter future in a time of unrelenting darkness.

Since 2017, Chinese authorities have detained around 1.8 million Uyghurs and other indigenous Turkic peoples in a vast network of internment camps for “re-education”, while others outside prisons and camps live under constant high-tech surveillance and control.

“The Chinese Communist Party has covered our motherland with blood,” said Shohret Tursun in a speech at the opening ceremony of the Muqam Ensemble.

“China is oppressing us to an unprecedented level, restricting our religion, banning our language, devastating our culture and our arts. They are murdering our Uyghur artists. Today we have done all we can to found the Uyghur Muqam Ensemble of Australia to honor our ancestors and blaze a new trail for our descendants.

Tursun told RFA that he hopes to inspire a new generation of Uyghur artists around the world to carry on the torch of Uyghur musical and singing traditions.

Uyghur musician Shohret Tursun (C) performs on stage with a band in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Shohret Tursun

“Music is a tool”

As well as being an entertainer, Rahima Mahmut is the British representative to the World Uyghur Congress and adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international cross-party alliance of lawmakers and parliamentarians fighting against the rise of authoritarian China. .

For 20 years, Mahmut has used his artistry to raise awareness of the Uyghur voice through music, while bringing the crisis in Xinjiang to international attention.

“There’s no place like a person’s home,” she said. “You can’t compare [home] to something else. It has been five years since my contact with my family was cut off. Now I can’t even remember the faces of the people I love the most, but music is a tool that allows me to turn pain into strength.

Mahmut said she had always loved singing, but majored in petrochemical engineering at Dalian University of Technology near China’s Pacific coast. While looking for a job after graduation, she experienced first-hand the unequal treatment of Uyghurs by Chinese state institutions.

She planned to work in Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi), but was unable to find a job there due to severe state discrimination against Uyghurs. She also couldn’t find an acceptable job offer in her hometown of Ghulja (Yining).

But it was the massacre of young Uighurs in Ghulja, where she was born and raised, on February 5, 1997, that prompted her decision to leave Xinjiang for the UK.

“The hope for the preservation of our people, the preservation and flourishing of our culture and history, and the future existence of our homeland, can be a reality if we fight for these ideals in our lifetime,” Mahmut told RFA. “That’s why I always say despair is of the devil. We have to keep hope alive. Our arts give us hope.

“There is a proverb with us: despair is the work of the devil! she says. “Our art also gives us hope, so I have tried to give hope and confidence to our people in these times of tribulation through art and performance.”

Mahmut, who has lived in the UK since 2000, has performed Uyghur songs at major concerts and cultural festivals in the UK, Europe and the US.

She says her life as an activist began on her first day in the UK, when she explained the Uyghur persecution to her taxi driver.

Singer Rahima Mahmut sings a Uyghur song in an undated photo.  Photo courtesy of Rahima Mahmut
Singer Rahima Mahmut sings a Uyghur song in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Rahima Mahmut

Symbolic songs

Today, Mahmut speaks about the Uyghur genocide with representatives of the British government, members of Parliament, representatives of Jewish, Muslim and Christian institutions, leading British universities, media such as the BBC and Al Jazeera and directors of documentaries.

She also worked as an interpreter at the Uighur Court in London, which issued a non-binding decision on December 9, 2021 that China was committing genocide against Uighurs and other Turks in Xinjiang.

Mahmut said his urgency to showcase the beauty of Uyghur art and music to the world intensified in 2017 when the Chinese government’s forced assimilation campaign began in earnest.

Besides performing on stage in the Uyghur language, Mahmud has also translated the powerful messages of Uyghur songs, for example explaining the importance of grief expressed in the lyrics.

She said she recently released a recording of the Uyghur folk song “Lewen Yarlar” (Beautiful Lovers) to remind her audience of the suffering that Uyghurs are going through and their continued love for their homeland.

The song describes the life of Uyghur refugees after fleeing Chinese communist aggression and oppression.

“‘Lewen Yarlar’ is one of those symbolic songs,” Mahmut said. “The lyrics say, ‘We have found a place in the mountains, finding none in the garden, refusing to bow to the enemy.'”

One of the most powerful songs that Mahmut often sings during his performances is “Yearn for Freedom”. The song was adopted from a poem by the late Uyghur poet, writer and political thinker Abdurehim Otkur (1923-1995), a towering figure in modern Uyghur history whose ideas about the struggle for national freedom still resonate among the Uyghur people.

Otkur expressed the Uyghur’s desire for freedom:

I have neither patience nor indulgence,
A boiling pot is now my beating heart,
An erupting volcano is my heart’s desire
From this volcano I yearn for freedom.

The digital artwork of Uyghur artist Gulnaz Tursun
Uyghur artist Gulnaz Tursun’s digital artwork “Remember Who You Are”. Photo courtesy of Gulnaz Tursun

The Uyghur spirit

Visual artist Gulnaz Tursun, born into a family of Uyghur intellectuals in the village of Bayseyit in Almaty, Kazakhstan, said she also wanted to inspire confidence in young Uyghurs through her artistic creations and encourage them to believe in the coming.

“Believe, the dawn of freedom will come!” Gulnaz Tursun said when asked what message she wants her paintings to convey to Uyghurs.

“I want to give our children the confidence that we are not helpless, that the Uyghurs are also a great people who have built powerful empires in history, and that the Uyghurs will be able to overcome these difficult times and have a future of freedom,” she said.

After graduating from a Uyghur high school in her village, Gulnaz Tursan attended the Ural Tansykbayev Institute of Crafts and Arts in Almaty in 2002 and was admitted to the design faculty of the Academy the same year. Kazakh architects and construction. She graduated with honors and embarked on a career in the art world, participating in numerous exhibitions of works by young artists.

Speaking about the impact of the Uighur genocide on her work, she said the darkness that has descended on Uighurs in Xinjiang prompted her to change her style to one that seeks to inspire optimism and confidence. in the future of the Uyghurs.

During this process, she said, she created and distributed a number of inspiring digital works on social media, including “Hope”, “Don’t Forget Your Identity”, “Spring”, ” The Cute Child of My Motherland’s Free Future”. and “Unit”.

With her painting “Spring”, for example, Tursun said she wanted to convey the powerful message that the dark clouds in the sky will disappear and blue skies will come.

“Our birds will fly high and free again. Our fruit trees will bloom again. And we will enjoy the fruits of freedom again,” she said.

Tursun’s previous artistic creations depicted the daily life of Uyghurs, such as a woman fetching water or having a conversation over tea. But since 2017, her paintings have focused on “inspiring and motivating young people to have faith in a bright future by reminding them of our nation’s glorious history”, she said.

“In order to have a positive impact on our young generation, every good thing starts with confidence, so I created designs with confidence-boosting slogans like ‘Have faith, the dawn of freedom will come'”, she said.

“I created these works of art to inspire confidence in our freedom for the future generation,” she said. “These artworks I created are all based on the Uyghur spirit and Uyghur characteristics.”

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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