In 2000, one year after completing a year-long dissertation research in Nanjing, I returned to China. This time my goal was to travel in Xinjiang, a stop on the Silk Road of yore. I traveled a lot before and since, and yet this particular trip remained vivid in my mind. The trip to Xinjiang felt not only like a foray to a new place, but also like a voyage back in time. It was a different world.
There were many interesting things to see: the vast Taklamakan desert, the Tarim Mummies, the Bezeklik Caves, to name a few. But the place that spoke to me most was the old oasis town of Kashgar. Back in 2000, there were no paved roads in Kashgar. The houses were built of mud bricks, along narrow, winding alleys. And the Sunday Market was like nothing I’ve ever seen, with camels, donkey and livestock offered for sale along vegetables, spices, carpets and many other goods.
Like the world of my childhood or my grandfather’s shop, however, the city of Kashgar transformed beyond recognition in the last twenty years. The old town with its labyrinth of streets was razed to the ground, replaced by a Disneyland-like fantasy of a Silk Road Oasis. There are attempts to erase the people who live there, too.
An Unfinished Quilt Series
A couple of years ago, during the pandemic lockdown, I read an article that saddened me greatly. It was about the current situation in Xinjiang, and the “reeducation” of its native Uighurs. It made me think of my long-ago trip, and the happy, friendly people we encountered. I wondered what happened to the people we met. Were they still alive? Were they well?
I decided to make a quilt series based on pictures I took on that tip, and started by sewing the backgrounds to five pieces. Once I finished those, I contemplated whether to displayed these pieces individually, or as one, large, five-paneled piece. I wasn’t able to decide. That wasn’t my only issue with these pieces, however. The works required images and text, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do add those. None of the image-transfer methods I was familiar with was suitable, and I wasn’t able to think of a good solution. Before I was able to solve any of these issues, however, my mom’s health took a turn for the worse. I dropped everything and went to see her. When I returned, over a month later, I got distracted by other things and never got back to these Xinjiang pieces. They are still piled up, unfinished, in my sewing room.
Playing with Matte-medium Image Transfers
Earlier this year, I finally got to play with matte medium image transfers, something I’ve been meaning to try for a while. When it came to choosing images to transfer, my first thought went to the pictures I took in Kashgar. I decided to see if this method will make it possible to finish my above-mentioned forsaken series.
My first couple of attempts were a complete disaster. After I rubbed the paper off, nothing was left of the images…
I kept trying, however, and, once I learned to smear a thick layer of medium and let it dry over night, I had better luck.
It was quite magical to see an image appearing out of a blank page! My first success was with a photo I took of an elderly woman selling chili peppers in the market.
I didn’t like the fact that some of the paper was impossible to remove, though, or the significant danger of loosing parts of the image you actually want…
Also, I didn’t at all like the mess this method creates.
“Vanishing Kahgar” Quilt Series
Never Choose a Product by its Package?
Once I the chili seller appeared intact, I remembered a rice sack I bought a while back. At the time, I ran out of rice, and went to the grocery shop to buy more. I ended up buying this sack just because of its packaging. It just looked like the kind of thing I might find useful some day. And now I did!
I stained the image I transferred with some coffee grounds, to give it an aged look. Then I added pieces of scraps from my stash, as well as a piece of lace, a cutout from the rice sack, and some momigami paper.
Once the composition felt right, I chose matching thread and sewed it together.
I finished by adding a touch of hand stitching. The result was “The Chili Seller.”
Next, I made “The Barber.” We saw many street barbers (and street dentists!) on the streets of Kashgar. They all seemed to have plenty of work.
For this piece and the ones that followed, I decided to incorporate swatches of fabric that reminded me of Xinjiang: ikat prints or geometric prints that resembles Islamic art. The colors in this piece, derived from the photo I used, are the greens and blues meant to deter the evil eye.
Waste Not Want Not
As I was putting the finishing touches on this last piece, my son’s bed sheet tore into half. Luckily for me, it was the perfect color for this series, and the perfect kind of fabric for image transfers!
I immediately put it to good use… I loved the wrinkles created by the elastic, and decided to make these a part of my design.
More Finished Pieces
As I mentioned before, I made sure to add some hand stitching to each piece. I really do think it makes all the difference!
Here is a close up of some of the hand stitching I added to “The Tinsmith:”
And this is “The Tinsmith” in its entirety:
This one is “The Young Horse Rider:”
“The Bicycle Rider” incorporates the rough edge of the original bed sheet elastic, which I like:
For “The Egg Seller” I found a perfect rose-colored scrap to match the plastic bags in the photo!
“Market Day” is based on an image of three generations of Uighur women going out to market in Kashgar.
I was very close to loosing important parts of the image in “The Hat Seller.” I was lucky most of it stayed on! If I’m not mistaken, I actually bought a hat from this merchant, which I still have somewhere.
“The Young Adventurer” is probably one of my favorites. We came across this outgoing cutie and a couple of his friends in one of Kashgar’s side alleys. They must have been four or five years old, and were very curious about our camera. They came close to take a better look. We showed them how it worked, and even let them take a few pictures.
Getting the composition right for this one took a few tries.
I’m pretty happy with the end result:
Here’s the entire series all together: