Something has happened to Uyghur art over the past few years. The complex collection of traditions and performance that evolved through generations has turned darker.

“Sometimes I cannot control my sadness and write something really depressing,” Muyesser Abdul’ehed Hendan, a poet from Ghulja in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who now lives in Turkey, told the WEghur Stories podcast in March of 2021.

Hendan and other Uyghur artists are responding to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) policies threaten Uyghur culture and make Uyghurs living abroad fear returning to their homeland.

The PRC is committing crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, where it has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and others since 2017, and engages in forced labor and sterilization.

The PRC has turned Xinjiang into a surveillance state and attacks Uyghur culture, bulldozing mosques, arresting prominent poets and artists and banning the Uyghur language.

Hendan told a panel on Uyghur Poetry in Exile in September that the work of Uyghur artists reflects their complex experience. “Please regard what we are writing as not only poetry, but the voice of oppressed people, not only crying for help, but the bravery that has been fighting for freedom.”

For Hendan, that means writing poetry exploring emotions triggered by the crisis. She also has written a novel, Kheyr-khoshquyash (Farewell, Sun), based on the PRC’s mass detention of Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

Mukaddas Mijit, a Uyghur academic and artist who lives in France and hosts the WEghur Stories podcast, says Uyghurs around the world remain emotionally attached to their ancestral homeland and that art helps many feel connected to events taking place there.

Fear of PRC repercussions against relatives back home prompted some Uyghur artists to publish under pseudonyms. One of these, the digital artist Yette Su, uses ominous imagery such as the one above, with arms reaching out from a map of the PRC, to highlight the plight of Uyghurs. The art illustrates the PRC’s transnational repression, which includes forcibly repatriating Uyghurs, as well as other efforts to silence their voices and stifle their activism.

Guldana Salimjan, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, founded the multimedia platform Camp Album, a forum where people from Xinjiang can post art and poetry without fear of repercussions. The project seeks to foster solidarity among Uyghurs and other Muslim communities living outside China.

“For minority populations that have been deprived a voice and freedom for so long, art is a way for self-empowerment and self-representation,” Salimjan, who formerly used the pseudonym Yi Xiaocuo, said in a February 2020 interview. “Even in the harshest circumstances, art has a way to deride power and authority to help people cope.”