We caught up with Dragons instructors Luke Hein and Kawsar Muhtar to learn more about their art-based project to tell stories from Uyghur people around the world during Ramadan.
Every day during the month of Ramadan for the past two years, Luke Hein makes a watercolor painting and posts it on his Instagram handle, vlfhein. The paintings are renditions of photographs and stories gathered in the Tarim Basin area of western China, and they showcase vignettes of life there: Kashgari pottery, desert landscapes, clay tonur (i.e., tandoor) ovens, street scenes, mosques, and buildings decorated with intricate and colorful mosaics.
When he launched the Ramadan watercolor project in 2019, Luke had just returned from a personal trip through the Tarim Basin, located in Xinjiang Province, China. He wondered: was there a way to publicize the challenging realities there without making explicit political comments that could compromise his ability to travel there in the future? Inspired by Chiura Obata, the renowned Japanese-American artist who painted and taught while imprisoned at the Topaz internment camp during World War II, Luke hit upon the idea of raising awareness indirectly.
I said, ‘Let me just highlight things I love, to build knowledge, to build understanding, and through that to build empathy and eventually connection and love because that’s what going to make people risk to help somebody else, that’s what’s going to make people loyal to other people.’ The project is valuable because it’s not directly critical. That’s sort of the key move.
“I had been carrying around a cakey old tray of watercolors from my days as a home schooler. I brought it all over Indonesia and China, telling myself I was going to paint something.” It wasn’t until Luke arrived back in the U.S. that he finally sat down to paint with his niece. “I just started doing it, I didn’t know much about watercolors,” explains Luke, adding that he “drew poorly” throughout high school before his interest in the visual arts waned.
During the first year of the Ramadan watercolor project, most of the paintings were of photographs from Luke’s direct experiences traveling in Xinjiang Province. Luke had just moved back into his parent’s house in Alabama to help take care of his ailing father, who had been diagnosed with cancer five years prior and was now taking a sharp decline. Luke recalls his father coming out every night while he was painting at 2 or 3 in the morning. “I interrupted my paintings to give massages, talk with him, sometimes to be angry with him, sometimes to be curious, to make time to be with him.” Luke’s father passed away about a month after the completion of the first Ramadan project, on the summer solstice, surrounded by family.
“With this watercolor that you can’t control super well, not in the same way you can control a pen when you’re doing cartoons, drawing/erasing then drawing again, these details, freckles, each leaf on a tree… you can’t do that in watercolor. It takes away your ability to control that much. It ended up being a really healthy medium for me. I came to identify it a little bit with some of the ideas I was struggling with over control, two tensions I was holding very tightly to: One, the situation with my father, the other situation with a friend in China I was very worried about. Both of which I had almost no control over, both of which became fused in me and in the project. I was doing a lot of thinking by painting.”
Though not a Muslim, Luke fasted and observed the other tenets of Ramadan while painting. Says Luke: “It’s no accident that I was doing this during Ramadan. I don’t know a lot about Islam, my understanding is evolving. The act of submission was the idea I was repeating in my head. This isn’t necessarily going to look good. The time constraint was another element: I’m going to do one painting a day. Some of the paintings aren’t going to get done. You can see pencil on some of the places where I didn’t actually get to painting because it took me so long, I had to move onto the next one.”
The last piece of the project fell into place during a phone call with fellow Dragons instructor Kawsar Muktar—a Uyghur woman from Kashgar—during which they discussed parallels between Uyghurs and the Cajun ethnic group. Years of conversations with his bayou-born grandmother sparked an increasing interest in the history of the Cajun ethnic minority. Why, wondered Luke, when his grandmother’s first language had been French, did neither he nor his father speak a word of it?
After suffering targeted violence and forced removal from Maritime Canada beginning in 1755, the mostly Catholic, French-speaking Acadians (or ‘Cajuns’) were deported en masse to Britain, France, and various colonies. Many Cajuns later regrouped and settled in South Louisiana. Historian Shane K. Bernard explains how xenophobic policies associated with the Red Scare, World War I and II, and the Cold War pressured Cajuns to move to the city and assimilate into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. It was during this time that many Cajuns, including Luke’s grandmother, stopped speaking French.
And yet the Cajun identity didn’t disappear. “In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s,” says Luke, “ there was this revival of Cajun as cool. Something on the verge of disappearing seemed to gain the public eye. Most of it was through music and food, commodifying those in a way. It became cool to go to New Orleans, Mardi Gras was super cool.” Although some Cajun activists are critical of this commercialized caricature of Cajun-ness, Luke suspects that without this revival, perhaps no Cajun tradition would have survived to reevaluate today.
Hein pauses before adding: “There is a long tradition in China of talking about something that happened in a previous dynasty as an allegory, a veiled critique of something that is happening currently.”
In its second year, the Ramadan watercolor project started to change shape from an intensely personal project to a collective endeavor. Luke explains that he had been reading on critical pedagogy and became convinced of the value of what Paulo Freire describes as a dialogic relationship a teacher or researcher forms with partners in a project. He began asking himself: “How can I put more control of this project into other peoples’ hands?”
The answer came once again from Kawsar Muhtar, now living in Paris with her husband and three-year-old daughter. Kawsar recounts: “My encounter with the Ramadan watercolor project actually started with Dragons (staff) orientation in 2016 when I met Luke Hein. I remember we had discussions about what was happening in my hometown. It felt very nice and connected to talk to someone who had been to (my hometown) before and understands the situation.”
During the second year of the Ramadan watercolor project, Kawsar began collecting stories from Uyghurs from the Tarim Basin now living abroad, asking people to share old photos and the stories behind them. Stories and photos came flooding in from Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, the UK, and elsewhere.
Kawsar translated the stories and Luke made paintings from the photos. Says Kawsar: “We want this project to draw people’s attention to the land currently being forgotten. Secondly, we want the diaspora community from [Tarim Basin] to share their beloved memories about their hometown and families, to let each other know that they are not alone, give each other strength and encourage each other to go through this difficult time together.”
“Personally, it has been very difficult for me to accept the fact of not being able to contact my parents in any form at the beginning. Especially because it happened right after I gave birth to my daughter when I needed my parents so badly, I had tons of questions to ask from my parents, and tons of feelings I feel after being a mother that I need to tell my mom. I felt very angry for a long time, I cried a lot, it even led to a period of depression when my daughter was a few months old. Now I am more at peace. When I receive those stories, I know that I am not the only person who lost contact and connection to their families. I think some people need this platform to express their feelings. It is very important.”
Kawsar shares a recent message from a Uyghur girl living in Japan:
Kawsar: Do you miss your father?
The girl: If I saw his shadow, I would hug it.
“For me,” adds Kawsar, “the most inspiring part of this project is that I got to talk to the Uyghur people all over the world, listen to their stories and feelings, and feel connected.
After we started to post our invitation to collect photos and stories, a lot of people sent me their photos and told me about their memories. Some of them didn’t have any photos, but they told me the stories or the feelings which they miss the most. Luke did some paintings based on just those memories, which I think was incredible. A lot of people don’t have any photos or memories to share, but they still write to me and express gratitude and say that they love to follow the stories and photos I post every day. One Uyghur lady who lives in Sweden sent me a poem she wrote after she saw our invitation.”
Kawsar and Luke hope to continue the project in future years, both as a means of raising awareness about the lives of Uyghur people to an external audience, and as a way of fortifying Chinese Muslims in the diaspora through storytelling during their holiest month. Kawsar and Luke are actively enlisting help to translate the stories into multiple languages, and many of the stories have already been translated into Indonesian by friend and colleague Umi Akhdadiyah. The pair also have plans to write a children’s book in the Uyghur language using Luke’s illustrations.
Below you will find the aforementioned poem and Luke’s accompanying watercolor painting. It is the woman’s first poem.
I Most Want
A poem on which the painting was based by a Kashgar native and mother of two boys now living in Sweden @miskin.kalip. Translated from Uyghur to Chinese by Kawsar Muhtar, and from Chinese to English by Luke Hein.
I most want to gather the alfalfa clustering in the fields,
to return home and make mouthwatering alfalfa dumplings.
My eyebrows have become dry and rough;
I want the moisture from the Osma grass to draw them into the shape of a heart.
My hair, like my very self, withers and becomes brittle.
I most want to smear it with Persian olive, infusing a bit of nutrition,
or, even more, I wish to hang against my mother’s bosom as when I was a child
and let her to rub me with sheep oil while I absorb the sun.
I want to dress bright and beautiful, put on high heels,
stalk the Old Town’s streets and alleys.
I hope Kashgar’s rain soaks me through.
I’d open my two hands and scream,
allowing my tears to fall the way of the rain.
I most want, in the kitchen, before the holiday, to press close to my mother
while we bake dumplings, fry pancakes, and meticulously prepare the holiday table.
When I think that I was at my mother’s side and never once thanked her,
I have ten thousand regrets and want to run off to slap this mouth of mine until it shatters.
Luke Hein is a freelance writer and experiential educator working in the PRC, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the US. Luke was raised in Auburn, Alabama AL after his Louisianan parents relocated there from Seattle in 1987. Home schooled until high school, Luke left Auburn ahead of schedule to spend his senior year in China in 2005. He has been returning there since, as a student, guide, researcher, traveler, and teacher. He’s passionate about rural places, regions where boundaries blur, and the ingenious strategies people invent to contend with life’s challenges. He writes and makes art at Instagram @vlfhein and has a recent article out on The News Lens International. You can hear an interview between Luke and his grandmother at a StoryCorps.
Kawsar Muhtar grew up in Kashgar old city and received a Chinese language education until middle school. She worked as a language teacher, journalist, and editor in Urumqi, where she gained valuable experience with Uyghur media and literature. Kawsar continued her studies in London, where she researched the role of mass media in social construction, representation, and understanding of difference and social diversity. After her studies, she worked as a Dragons instructor in China. She now lives in Paris as a part-time editor and an almost full-time mom.