Street art is unofficial and independent visual art created in public locations for public visibility. Socially, street artists’ works are now being used as a proactive tool for change, transforming areas across the globe. One non-profit is keen on merging art with goals of social reform. The founder of Fearless Collective, Bangalore-based artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, is embarking on an Art Yatra to work towards emphasising how street art can be the voice to social change. Fearless Collective is a South Asia based public art project that creates space to move from fear to love using participative public art.

In conversation with TC46, Shilo Shiv Suleman talks about the journey of Art Yatra, the foundation of Fearless Collective, the need for awareness and open dialogue, and how India’s diversity is all about acceptance.

1. What prompted you to start the Fearless Collective?

We find ourselves in a pretty odd moment right now with, almost 8 years later, we’re back on the streets at a protest for yet another woman who’s been raped in India in a brutal way but in 2012, I was in Delhi at a very similar movement and went out on to the streets and there was this incredible wave of anger… of power.

We had reached our limit, in a way. It felt like gender-based violence was something that people no longer ignore in the country and what was quite remarkable was that it wasn’t just a story of one woman, it was a story of multiple women who had all experienced similar things, various forms of gender-based violence. It felt like everybody who was there at the protest were there telling their own stories of harassment, a break of molestation but then all of the stories that they were hearing were full of fear. It constantly told women not to go out, there was a lot of victim-blaming and it felt like that fear was very counterproductive to the change that this country actually needed.

So, I put up a poster on the internet and before I knew it, I had started this viral online movement of hundreds of artists across the country and across the world who were all sending in their own estimations about fearlessness. I spent the last 8 years working on The Fearless Collective and since then, it’s grown into a much larger movement of women reclaiming public spaces.

2. Did you always know you wanted to work in the non-profit space? 

Not at all actually, and I would still say that I can balance many worlds in a way because at that point, in 2012 I had a pretty fully grown career in art and technology. I had just launched this series of new media iPads for kids called Khoya, which was number 5 on the App Store. I gave a Ted Talk about it and then got about a million views and so I was going to get it replaced but I had a very different parallel life going when it came to looking at Khayad Hi-Tech. But at that point, it really felt like I need to also be dedicating my time looking at the deeper issues and the social inequities in India. And so I had continued to live a parallel life where on one hand, I have a pretty thriving career as an independent artist and I continue to do a lot of work with art and technology, especially interactive artist relations that respond to your brain waves and your pulse, and, I also dabble with the AI space, so that’s a parallel life because it’s literally while I’m working on Fearless and doing work on the streets at the very grass root level. Simultaneously, I’m also doing a lot of work with interactive new media and art. 

3. What led to the foundation of Art Yatra? What does it represent?

So right now we’ve really found ourselves in a very unique moment of complete isolation. We were all forced into our houses and our rooms for so many months and now as the world begins to come back into this new normal, we’ve kind of decided that we want to set the new normal as being a softer, kinder, and a more inclusive world. So the same way that politicians do yatras across the country, we are also currently doing yatras across the country. Except, we are here spreading love, spreading beauty, and working with women, with Dalits, with the queer communities, with the waste-picker communities, people who have been most marginalised during this lockdown. We are going to be working with them on bringing their stories into public spaces with even more visibility.

4. How has engaging with a plethora of unique people helped you make progress with Art Yatra?

We just got back from a project in Lucknow, which was really interesting being in Uttar Pradesh right now, a couple of days after the death of this young Dalit woman. It’s a very opportune time to be there working on issues that are about gender-based violence in the streets. And so, we were working with a group of Muslim women in Lucknow. As you know Uttar Pradesh is not very safe for women to say the least, and for us to be actually standing in the middle of the street painting our own bodies, reclaiming space in a very old and very conservative part of Lucknow is an incredibly radical thing to be doing at this moment.

So, we just finished our project with a group of Muslim women over there following which we are now in Delhi. We are going to be working with Dalit women from the waste-picker community in Delhi and at least for me personally, as I engage with all of these different communities, a lot of artists try to keep their practice very private but for me, I really open up this practice to the public and in the process, where I realised how art really makes us visible to each other. We can make our interior emotional worlds visible to each other through art. It really expands upon what the human experience is—what fear is, what love is, what acceptance is, what our relationship with our bodies is. And as I do these projects across the country with different groups of women, I can see my own understanding and acceptance shifting quite a bit.

5. What was the turning point for the Fearless Collective?

I would say my biggest kind of milestone or the first milestone rather, was definitely when I was in my tour to Pakistan and I crossed a deep border of fear for myself personally as well as on a national level. There is so much history and heritage that’s picked up, and that we come with, and that we think about while going across the border to Pakistan. But, as I crossed the border and worked with communities of women in Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi, and in Islamabad, I really recognise that you may put a border in place between two nations, but the women across the world are always connected to each other. Our experiences and our stories are always the same. And so, actually, we need to be using our art to be able to make us more visible to each other, to recognise that no matter what our political, logical and religious difference is, we need to look at the similarities that we have. In fact, there was a strategy about dividing us, which was to divide and rule and I think with us, right now, with Fearless, our mission is to really unite and create across borders, across the world.

6. What are some challenges faced by The Fearless Collective when pursuing progress to make voices heard from a variety of communities?

There is a reason why we call ourselves fearless, because in all honestly, there are no challenges because we look at challenges as opportunities. For example, right now when we were painting, we had 30 people surrounding us, just staring at us, 50 men surrounding us and staring at us. The fear that comes with us working in public spaces sometimes late in the night and also with very vulnerable communities, is that we feel a great deal of responsibility for them. But we definitely see these challenges, see these fears, these moments of anxieties as opportunities to heal and to create beauty. And so, I would say there are very few challenges.

7. How do you engage with people to create awareness, open dialogues in public spaces & manage communities?

With Covid-19 and the last few months, we’ve found ourselves in an interesting space where we really have to limit the kind of dialogue we can have in physical spaces and yet as we were standing in the streets in Lucknow, we were surrounded by people who were at first just shocked to see women at a chowk in Old Lucknow, the way that we were. But what we do is that instead of calling people out, we always call them in; we always call them into our experiences so if somebody is staring at us or says, “Why did you paint such a dark woman”, our responses will always to engage conversation with them. The thing is also that aside from dialogue in a verbal way, there is also a dialogue that is happening just purely on a subconscious and visual level because when we walk in public space, the images that we see are basically images of politicians. Our government puts something like Rs 2,000 crore into outdoor publicity every year, and we see a lot of images of sexy women selling different things in different ads. But we don’t see images of real women: We don’t see images of Muslim women, we don’t see images of Dalit women, we don’t see images of gay men, and gay women. We don’t even see images of even just normal women; our bodies are either used as an object of fantasy, or as an object, or seen as goddesses who are completely untouchable, infallible and not human. So for us again to make our humanity, make our bodies and our stories visible is a form of creating dialogue as well.

8. What plans do you have in store for the future of Art Yatra? 

We are currently in Delhi, following which we will be in Jaipur, and then we are going to be in Bangalore. In each of these places, we are going to be painting with different communities who are really, extremely marginalised during this time. What I would say the challenge with the pandemic actually is that there are communities that are already invisible, and this lockdown has further invisibilized them. The more we went into the isolation of our homes, the more disconnected we were with the experiences of a waste-picker, or the experience of a farmer, or the experience of a domestic worker, or the experience of a labourer. We isolated ourselves more and more and the class and caste divide became even stronger.

So what we’re really trying to do is bring people back together through art to create opportunities to be able to see each other even in these times of separation. In Delhi, we are working with Dalit women who are all a part of the waste-picker movement here. In Jaipur, we are working with the queer men, the gay men on making the first gay monument or mural in India and the one we just made in Lucknow was also about LGBTQ issues, which was very radical to be painting in a space like Lucknow, which is slightly conservative.

9. How do you see India progressing with the acceptance of neglected communities, especially the queer & LGBT community?

In a way, India is a diverse space. There is no definition that can completely encapsulate India because we are a hundred languages, and tongues, we are a hundred different shades of brown, we are a hundred different ways of draping a saree, we are a hundred different cuisines. The beauty of India is really in our diversity and our ability to be both one, and many. If you look around us, especially in older spiritual traditions, there were so many ways of accepting that kind of diversity. There was no one homogenetic idea of India, there were many Indias. And it’s the British that really over-simplified our identities.

If you look back in times, they were everything from Tawaifs in Lucknow with women like Begum Akhtar who had lovers, who were singers, who were financially independent on one hand we have the Devdasi tradition, which really looked at sensuality and sexuality as being a pathway to God, we have the Nagasadhus who were celibate, who would hide up inside the mountains—there were so many different ways that one could be. And unfortunately what happened with the British is that they imposed a lot of moralistic views on India as a way of also making us look at ourselves as being primitive; it was very much a strategy to be able to colonise our country. And we’ve kind of adopted that colonial way of thinking when we see each other as being binary when the reality is we are non-binary, we are a million things, that’s what makes us beautiful.

So when it comes to the future, I think in spaces like India, time is cyclic, so sometimes if you go back into your past, you will emerge into your future. And I think, we really need to be looking back at our past and reclaiming our traditions in India that allowed for a diverse sense of identity, that allowed for different ways of loving, that allowed for a different kind of identity and acceptance of that.

10. What are your tips for anyone who wants to volunteer, speak up, share stories or provide support for Art Yatra?

With Fearless, even though it began as a personal art project and a very personal response, the ambition is to really grow into a movement. I see hundred and hundreds of South Asian women out in the streets, putting up posters of themselves, painting walls, taking over public spaces, representing their own bodies, representing their own stories and that is really also our vision and mission right now. We are training hundreds of artists across South Asia, we are all women. So when there are moments of fear, of trauma, we respond by creating beauty. So the Fearless movement is really open for people to join.

You don’t even have to be an artist to join and you just have to believe that we need to live in a more fearless world as South Asian women. It really tends to be like Black Lives Matter in the global South. So if people want to join us, they can physically join us in the three cities that we are going to be painting in—Delhi, Jaipur and Bangalore. They can also join us virtually. I am constantly doing public art masterclasses, which are free and available for people to join. This is really the intention that we want people to join us in creating a new normal that is softer, kinder, more loving and more inclusive.

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