FII Interviews: Shiloh Shiv Suleman on channeling her fears into creating art

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FII Interviews: Shiloh Shiv Suleman on channeling her fears into creating art


Trigger Warning: Mention of rape

Shiloh Shiv Suleman is an Indian artist, illustrator and activist. She founded The Fearless Collectivee, an art collective that employed the use of participatory art in public spaces, in 2012 as a response to the patriarchal narratives surrounding gender-based violence circulating in Indian media. This led to her being hailed as FeminaA woman of valuein 2014 and the New Indian Express Devi Award in 2015.

In Conversation with FII, Shiloh Shiv Suleman talks about her early years at work, the challenges she faced and her personal identity.

Source: Shilo Shiv Suleman

FII: It’s been a decade since you were founded The Fearless Collective in 2012 after the Delhi gang-rape case. Could you share what motivated you to create the collective?

Shiloh: Ten years ago, when the Nirbhaya case happened in India, one woman’s story somehow became a vessel to hold the stories of thousands and thousands of women. We were all there in the streets with raised fists, lamenting the violence against a woman, yet acknowledging our own moments of grief. As we unfolded each other’s stories, there was not only catharsis but a tremendous amount of alchemy. There was healing, there were people coming to terms with their own hidden parts, like hidden wells inside them that they hadn’t revealed to each other, maybe never. As I looked around at the people I loved—from family members to friends—they all revealed their wounds to one another in perhaps the most authentic way I had seen in many generations of Indian women.

Source: Outlook India

In parallel, while every newspaper you picked up at this point reported violence against women, the mainstream narratives contained no room for healing. We all talk about change, revolution and protests, but really, for something to move, it has to move from a deep place inside, it has to be this inner alchemy that then leads to bigger revolutions. Planets orbiting the Sun have a deep internal sense of gravity. For me, listening to the stories of people I knew and didn’t know was this deep space of gravity.

FII: What do you think has changed in Indian society in terms of how safe women are after all these years, and how has your collective’s work evolved as a result?

Shiloh: Now, ten years later, I don’t know if I can talk anymore about what’s happening on the streets in India, or even necessarily what has changed or not, but what I can talk about is definitely this , which has changed inside me and the way I look at public space in the country. We, through The Fearless Collective, try to be there for communities that cannot fearlessly view public spaces. When we paint a mural or create a public monument, we find ourselves so radically in love with ourselves that there is no room for hatred of others.

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The way Nirbhaya chose to reveal her name, we choose to reveal ourselves, we choose to make ourselves incredibly visible when we don’t hide, we don’t feel ashamed. And we are definitely not victims of our own narratives. Instead, we hold the threads of our own stories. It is not that we are not afraid; we are afraid. But we choose to be able to fight our fear with love, beauty and imagination instead of giving in to our fears.

FII: How has growing up half Hindu, half Muslim shaped your personal identity?

Shiloh: I was born Shilo Shivanandan which is my father’s name. At one point I decided to change my name to Shiloh Shiv Suleman, which is my mother’s name because I was raised by my mother. So, I said, “Why not acknowledge the matriarchy here? Why should I not admit that my mother is a single mother who gave birth to me, who created me?” But I remember six years ago my mom sat me down and said, “Shiloh, you don’t understand. If you have a Hindu name in your passport, you keep it. I may have cared for you, I may have raised you. But there is no reason to have a Muslim name.”

Source: Shilo Shiv Suleman/Instagram

I thought nobody cared what your name was in this country. Flash forward to four years later in Shaheen Bagh. Well, millions of people are potentially citizens because of the names they have and all their documentation.

FII: Would you like to talk about the intersections between your Hindu and Muslim identities?

Shiloh: I will definitely say that sometimes I tend to be able to imagine that we can look at identities in a very fluid way. My being half Hindu and half Muslim is the same way multiple mystical identities were formed at the threshold of Islam and Hinduism, there were no divisions. Pilgrims will go from one destination to another and what is holy is indeed what we have to offer regardless of our religious identity. But the reality of the situation is that we are currently living in very politically charged times where it doesn’t matter what name you have on your passport.

FII: Would you like to share a few experiences or moments that stood out to you while traveling and working in different countries in South Asia?

Shiloh: At first we got an invitation to Nepal and I realized that our methodology worked there too – these processes of self-representation were not just an Indian thing, they actually worked in a universal way. Then we started working all over the world, went to seventeen or eighteen different countries and painted over fourteen murals. Pakistan, in particular, has been a very, very interesting journey for me because if we talk about fear and national trauma, it’s still an ongoing story. It’s a reckoning, like when we hear people tell each other stories about Partition or even what Muslim identity means in India right now.

Source: Shilo Shiv Suleman/Instagram

So for me to be able to go to Pakistan and paint three murals there was one of the most fearless things I’ve ever done. One of our associates who was helping us with visas was shot in Pakistan a few months before I arrived there. This was perhaps the first time Indian artists worked on the streets in Pakistan and painted murals. People’s faces were blackened within hours of painting the mural and none of our murals in Pakistan remained because we painted images of women on the streets and they were instantly torn down. So for us to even attempt to paint a feminist mural in Lahore, to paint a transgender mural in Rawalpindi, to paint with children affected by gang violence in Lyari in Karachi, even that was a radical act.

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And since then I have seen many amazing movements around street art in Pakistan. But when I went there, the only street art we were really seeing was images of Gina painted on the street, or maybe some graffiti, but there was no real political street art before Fearless made its mark there. So it really was like landing on the moon in a sense.

FII: Your mother Nilofer Suleman, whom you mentioned in your answer, is also an extremely famous artist. How have your interactions with her throughout your life shaped your own art?

Shiloh: My mother’s name is Nilofer Suleman. Nilofer is a blue flower and Suleman is a mountain range. We are very different from each other, although we are both artists, we are both keepers of beauty in many ways. She is very meticulous and spends four months on one painting. And her work is also not outwardly political, but it is very inwardly political. And with my job, I can spend four days on a sixty-foot mural and be like “Ok, I’m done, bye“. So I tend to be a lot broader, I tend to be a lot more rebellious and vocal. But my mother has a very different approach to identity and politics, an equally powerful approach.

Source: Shilo Shiv Suleman/Instagram

Because while with me a lot of fearless work is about reclaiming public spaces, making monuments for different communities that are marginalized, with her work it’s a memory. She remembers the body language, nuances, poetry, iconography, calligraphy and beauty of these communities. So her work is not so much about beating a drum in the street as it is about archiving and remembering the stories of these communities that are no longer remembered in the same way.

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FII: You often talk about the theme of “female power” or simply “the feminine” in art and culture. What does femininity mean to you when it comes to your own artistic creations?

Shiloh: Even though I didn’t grow up with my father, the mythology, the imagery, the iconography of Hinduism, and also the spectrum of the feminine that exists in Hinduism, has always been very fascinating to me. So for me there’s an automatic kind of connection because the myths are so beautiful and also non-binary. With the definitions of the feminine, I think the point is not to define it, because the more we start to define it, the more we end up in binaries, roles and expectations.

The idea is less to define and more to acknowledge that there is duality and multiplicity in the world, and it is a spectrum of multiplicities that exists in cultures, in our own bodies, in spirit, and in energy. What one culture defines as feminine may have a very different definition somewhere else.


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