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Committed to making public spaces more inclusive, beautiful and joyful, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman and her team at Fearless Collective completed a three city tour of Lucknow, Delhi and Jaipur in December 2020. The love and experiences that they gathered during their tour has been an antidote to the fear that had locked them into isolation earlier this year.
We caught up with Shilo Shiv Suleman to know about her initiative, art, her travel experiences and much more.Here are excerpts from the interview.
Women’s experience of exploring and travelling is radically different from men. How have you experienced this both in your personal travels as well as in the people you have met while doing projects like these?
I’ve always said it’s high time that women go out on the streets, reclaim their public space and represent their own stories, fearlessly. In general, India needs more women artists on the streets, making way for critical social justice conversations with marginalised communities and transforming corners of fear and trauma into a canvas of beautiful art. I have worked extensively with women protesting gender-based violence in South Asia through murals that are an amalgamation of performing and visual arts as well as activism.
Tell us about your recent travels.
The experience was enthralling and enchanting as we were traveling after months. The women and men who came out to support our dialogue were absolutely marvellous. I am proud to have met these amazing people.
What were some of the themes you used in your artwork during this tour? What was the idea behind choosing these themes?
We started off in Lucknow, home city of our collaborator, Urdu poetess and activist Sabika Abbas Naqvi. As the country was reeling with the nightmarish news from brutal gang rape of a Dalit woman in Hathras, we chose to speak of how women want to be touched. In a world where there is constant focus on ‘bad touch’ we reclaimed our potent pleasure with a group of Muslim women from the city.
Our work here was an exploration of female desire which we painted into form and glittering alphabets on one of the busiest intersections in the old city, infamously unsafe for women. We came into this space, with our brushes, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, ready to co-create magic. Our mural portrays two women holding each other (fierce and fearless), speaking the affirmation. From here, the Fearless team drove to Delhi where in partnership with Chintan (an Environmental Research and Action Group), we worked with a group of Dalit and Muslim women who work in wastepicking and segregation.
Our workshop here looked at emotional, social, environmental ecosystems, and just how closely interconnected these are. The women spoke about how everything has the potential to turn into something else and that in a larger whole, every small part is essential. These women are at the forefront of the plastic pollution crisis. They set out every morning before the sun is up, to collect, segregate and recycle the waste we thoughtlessly dispose of. Waste that would otherwise go straight into landfills. Our mural on Jor Bagh road (right beside the environmental ministry), is painted in solidarity with and in recognition of their lives, labour and dignity.
Our last stop was Jaipur, where we spoke to members from the queer community about making space for a spectrum of masculinities in a deeply patriarchal society. We took a deep, long look, with (straight, cis and queer men) about the allowance for vulnerability and the expression of tenderness. We asked them how they wanted to touch their lovers and were answered “with kindness and respect”, “in a way that they feel comfortable”, “in a long embrace”.
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Our intention here was to gather these expressions of softness and press them into a pink wall in the city. We collaborated with the neighbourhood traditional alfresco painters, a local photographer, called in the policemen from across the street and friends who danced life into this space. Our mural here stands as a tribute to queer love.
What was it like travelling during a pandemic?
In the last few months, the world itself contracted, our borders shut, we enclosed ourselves in our own homes, and stepped away from the streets. This has been a time of deep introspection, but also a time of unprecedented fear. As the world begins to expand again, Fearless asks if the world we re-emerge into can be more inclusive - for women, to those at the margins? More empathetic? Can we define the “new normal” as being a softer, kinder and more loving world?
This was the first time after the lockdown that Fearless was back on to the streets to paint and we are doing this with the greatest care and consideration given the unprecedented circumstances.
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We will be practicing all the safety measures stipulated by the WHO and local health care workers.The number of participants in each workshop will remain very limited and all activities will be conducted in large open spaces, maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Our own team will stay constant (2-3 people), travelling by road to reduce the risks of shared transport, and we will be getting tested every time we move to a new city. It was incredibly affirming to be back out on the streets. We had to be especially careful and take the necessary precautions so as to not to put at risk the communities we were working with. But doing this allowed for us to do the work we know we are meant to do.
Tell us about some of the people you met on your recent travels.
In Lucknow, we were hosted by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, poet and activist, who is a force! Through her, we met the most intimate parts of the old city (where she grew up) and a group of young women who were out painting with us every day. None of the girls had ever climbed scaffolding before and everyday together, we'd breathe life in to this wall, talk about our fears, dreams and desires. By the end of the project, we were family.
Many places abroad have detailed street art tours of cities now. What do you think about that, and could this be something we could start here?
Delhi and Bombay do have a few street art tours already. Of course this is a wonderful thing to do if people set out with the focused intention to view street art. The intention of our work however is to make art and beauty as accessible as possible, especially for the communities we work with. So you don't have to sign up for a paid walk to see the work we put out on the streets. It exists, publicly, to have and to hold.
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