A mural artist who champions the oppressed has painted a portrait of a former Uyghur survivor of an internment camp on a building in France’s second-largest city to raise awareness of the plight of the persecuted Muslim minority group in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.
French street artist Mahn Kloix’s portrait of Tursunay Ziyawudun, who has spoken publicly and testified about her experience in a Chinese internment camp, adorns the side of a building that is the regional headquarters of national telecom operator Orange in Marseille, a major port city in southern France.
“I was aware of what’s happening in China about your Uyghurs, and I was hoping to be able to speak about that,” Kloix, who is also a human rights activist, told RFA this month.
China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others in the camps since 2017, while dismissing widely documented evidence of the internment program, including testimony from former detainees and guards describing widespread in interviews with RFA and other media outlets.
China has said that the camps are vocational training facilities where Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic minorities learn skills under a program aimed at to preventing religious extremism in the region, where about 12 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs live.
RFA and other international outlets have reported extensively abuses endured by Tursunay and other camp detainees, including being beaten and forcibly sterilized.
The U.S., other Western government and legislatures, and human rights groups have declared that the abuses amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
Kloix told RFA that he chose to replicate a profile of Tursunay with her hand against the side of her face.
“I’ve been looking on the internet, and there are too many pictures,” he said. “I chose this one because there was something soft in the look, something sad about ‘looking away.’”
“And then I read an article by the BBC about Tursunay Ziyawudun, and after that I was convinced that this portrait was something relevant to the situation,” he said.
As a rights activist, most of Kloix’s paintings are of those who have endured injustices.
“I paint portraits of people who are fighting for their freedom and fighting for equality, justice, and a better world,” he said.
“And each time I read stories about people who are locked up or beaten or things like this because of their sexual choices or political point of view or because of their free speech, I feel like this is urging me [on],” he said.
'Mural has had ‘a great impact'
Dilnur Reyhan, president of the European Uyghur Institute, told RFA that Kloix’s portrait of Tursunay has drawn greater attention in France to the Uyghur crisis.
“It is significant that the portrait of Uyghur camp witness Tursunay Ziyawudun has being drawn by renowned French artist Mahn Kloix,” she said. “It has had a great impact on reaching out and letting the world know what is happening to the Uyghurs.”
Tursunay, who has lived in the United States since September 2020, has been denounced by China for speaking publicly and to the media about systematic rape in the camps.
The 43-year-old Uyghur woman from Kunes (in Chinese, Xinyuan) county in Xinjiang Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture was first detained on March 8, 2018, and spent a total of nine months at one of camps.
Tursunay said that looking at her portrait, which was taken by the BBC earlier this year, makes her feel sad, but seeing it in a mural is exciting because it can help the world know more about what is happening to the Uyghurs.
“This at least gives me some hope that men and women and my sisters in the camps in East Turkistan have a voice through that portrait display,” she said, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang.
Tursunay married an ethnic Kazakh doctor from Kunes in June 2008, and five years later the couple relocated to Kazakhstan, where they had a son and set up a medical clinic. Her husband was granted Kazakh citizenship, but authorities repeatedly refused Tursunay’s applications because she was Uyghur, she told RFA in a report two years ago.
Tursunay returned to Kunes in November 2016 to stay with her family at a time when authorities were implementing tough new policies targeting Uyghurs, including the confiscation of their passports and the criminalization of those who had traveled abroad.
In April 2017, authorities took Tursunay to an internment camp without giving a reason amid the rollout of the mass incarceration campaign in the region, but she was released after one month in part due to poor health.
But Tursunay was unable to get a passport and could not join her husband in Kazakhstan. In March 2018, she was again sent to a camp, where she reported that many of the dozen women she shared quarters with endured torture and poor treatment, including forced sterilization.
Tursunay was taken to a hospital to undergo forced sterilization, but doctors spared her because she suffered from a gynecological condition that could be complicated by the surgery or lead to her death. She was released in December 2018, later given her passport, and allowed to return to Kazakhstan to join her husband and their son.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.