Shilo Shiv Suleman is a half Hindu, half Muslim Indian visual artist, whose work is a blend of magical realism, art for social change and technology. She is the founder and director of the ‘Fearless Collective,’ which engages with issues of gender inequality, sexual violence, and the transformative power of art, by marrying together the feminist movement with street art.
With over 250 artists from India, Nepal and Pakistan, Fearless Collective uses collaborative murals as a means to create social change, replacing fear and powerlessness with trust and creativity in public spaces. Fearless Collective’s powerful, large-scale public art installations appear in such far-flung parts of the globe as San Francisco, Lahore, Johannesburg and Bangalore.
Fearless Collective is now run by a group of women across the world, including Nida Mushtaq (co-founder, Pakistan), and Cassie Denbow (USA).
Shilo, your mother is also a working artist – in fact you both exhibited recently at the annual India Art Fair. What influence has your mother had on your aesthetic?
She’s had a tremendous influence. The reason I’m an artist is very connected to my mother’s story. When I was 13 years old, my father said that he was going to go to China, and he never came back. He was always a bit of a magician with disappearing acts, but this time it was for real. My mum at that point didn’t have a career, she had two kids, and she started to paint not just as a way to provide financial care for us, but also to deal with what was going on in her life.
I always say that beauty saved me, because basically into the night we would stay with our pain, and all of our paintings in the beginning were full of a lot of trauma and abandonment, and then we stayed with it long enough and that slowly started to disappear.
I genuinely think that beauty saved me, and in return I think my mother and I are both fiercely in defense of beauty.
Shilo Shiv Suleman, by Fabrice Bourgelle
Was there a particular turning point in your artistic life, when you decided to turn your talents toward the area of social justice?
By 16 I was working with children’s literature, by 18 I had published around 10 books for children, and I was really fascinated with wonder. In those pages I was allowed to make crows that could talk, and forests that were full of secrets… and from there I got into doing a lot of work with technology. I was working with iPad books and at 21 that had really taken off, I gave a TED talk, things were really moving…
Illustration by Shilo Shiv Suleman
…And then the protests following the rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey** broke out. I happened to be in Delhi at that point.
I felt like I had to go out on the streets. I stood on the streets for three days. I found that all of our stories there were full of nuance – resilience and strength and fearlessness and beauty – and simultaneously what we were hearing in the media was full of fear. It was really counter-productive to what we needed to be hearing at that point. There was one story after another saying, “Don’t go out onto the streets because you’ll get raped, don’t attract attention to yourself because you’ll get raped, don’t take a bus because you’ll get raped, don’t go home by yourself because you’ll get raped.” It was non-stop.
I felt we needed to hear more stories of resilience and beauty and strength. I put one poster onto the Internet, and it turned into this viral campaign of hundreds of women sending in their own stories. Anyone could download these posters and put them up onto the streets. From there it’s grown into a pretty elaborate process of engaging with people in public space.
Shilo Shiv Suleman, at work in Bogor, Indonesia
You have now created 25 large-scale public murals in eight different countries. You choose a community to work with, come to understand what the issues are in that community, and then create a mural that gives voice to people whose existence might not otherwise get any public acknowledgment.
Yes, for example we were working in Pakistan with a group of transgender women: there are no representations of transgender women in public spaces, and we ended up making one of the first. It was a 40 foot image of a woman riding a motorcycle, and it said, “I am a creation of Allah,” which is a really radical thing for a transgender woman in Pakistan to be saying, and also a very radical thing for the people around to be seeing.
Did you feel in any way endangered when you were working on that mural, given how contentious that message would seem to some people?
We call ourselves the Fearless Collective and over the years we’ve engaged with creating some pretty radical representation in public space. With that particular mural, I had to leave the premises primarily because I was an Indian citizen on a Pakistani visa, and we were painting this in a military area.
Shilo with Fearless Collective’s co-founder from Pakistan, Nida Mushtaq
But there was another moment when we were in Pakistan, working in a place called Lyari, one of the oldest ports in Karachi, which is ridden with gang violence, and we were doing a project there on ‘what makes us feel safe.’ We were working in abandoned torture homes that had been used by the gangs there. I had this brilliant moment when I was standing on the street with a brush in my hand, painting, and a huge military tanker pulled up. Twelve men with guns formed a circle around me. I looked at them, and they said, “Oh, we just heard that there was an Indian citizen here, so we’re here for your safety.”
A lot of what we do with the Fearless Collective is a kind of disarmament. We try to disarm with our complete openness in every situation, whether we’re working with the daughters of sex workers in Delhi, or a group of Syrian refugees in Beirut, or an indigenous community in Brazil. It’s about staying on the streets with a brush in our hands, and holding space for all the difficult conversations that come by, and including everybody in those difficult conversations.
The creation of Fearless Collective’s murals is all-inclusive, regardless of whether participants have picked up a paintbrush before.
It seems that with the way you’ve designed the Fearless Collective’s method, you’re encouraging difficult conversations in a multitude of ways.
This is modeled after a very beautiful Hindu myth: for something to be truly impactful, it needs to first ring true with all of the atoms inside your body; and then it needs to ring true to all the people around you, so it needs to be socially true; and then finally it needs to ring true to every single star and galaxy in the universe.
With the Fearless work, what we try to do with that ‘mythical rule of three’ is see individuals tell their own stories without fear or shame in our workshop spaces…so there’s that personal aspect. Then there’s the social aspect: all of the things that happen while we’re actually there, like the bystander conversations, and sometimes the arguments. And finally then there’s the universal side, which works primarily with emotion. The methodology we’ve developed over the years draws on traditional storytelling techniques; we use ritual in all of our workshops as a way of getting into deeper emotional spaces, and because we link all of our stories through emotional threads, we see universal resonance with the themes that we work with.
Fearless Collective’s work marries beautiful visuals together with affirmative messaging.
And the work is always interwoven with a strong aesthetic of beauty.
We draw from the belief that even healing, even social justice needs to be beautiful.
Preparations for a mural in Lodhi Colony, Delhi
I’ve heard you tell a story of having talked to a sadhu (holy man) at a Kumbh Mela some years ago, who told you that if you, or indeed any woman, wanted to be worshipped like a goddess, then you needed to become a goddess. You were outraged by this statement at the time, but then changed your mind.
That was a particularly moving moment and I think it changed the course of the Fearless Collective work, particularly our work around affirmative messaging and not having the same sort of anxiety that a lot of social justice related stuff has. Like ‘Stop violence against women’, or ‘Save the tiger”: it’s ridden with anxiety. A lot of our work is about embodying the safe and sacred space that we want to inhabit, rather than fighting our current reality…which is why it’s important for a transgender woman in Pakistan to be able to say, “I’m a creation of Allah” and not, “Stop violence against transgenders.”
Why have you decided to invite other artists to adopt this approach, via your upcoming public art residency, where you will openly share your methods?
For me the most powerful moments have always been seeing other people use this methodology in their spaces in moments of fear and trauma. For instance, there was a bomb blast in Lahore, and some of the artists that we’d engaged with went to the site of the bomb blast the following morning and painted a mural. In a moment of national trauma, instead of responding with fear they were responding with beauty. Beauty does have an ability to become a force of resistance in itself.
People can take this and do something with it, become a powerful movement of women reclaiming the public space with their own stories, and working with communities in really beautiful meaningful ways as well. That’s where the idea around the residency program emerged.
Fearless Collective is currently running a fundraising campaign, to launch a public art residency. The vision is of women on the streets across South Asia, using beauty and art to reclaim public space with stories and affirmations, and facilitating critical social justice conversations with local communities.
You can learn more, and if you wish, also support the campaign, by clicking here.
Photos are courtesy Fearless Collective.
** Shilo is referring here to the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, which occurred in a bus in a neighbourhood in South Delhi. Known as ‘Nirbhaya’, Jyoti Singh Pandey tragically died as a result of her injuries. This sparked protests in the streets of Delhi, and then other cities around India, and became international news: it led to changes in Indian laws for greater protection of women.