Shilo Suleman brings participative art to Georgia Tech

Shilo Shiv Suleman // Photo courtesy of the Fearless Collective

In partnership with Georgia Tech Arts, Tech’s LGBTQIA Resource Center, and Tech’s Women’s Resource Center, Shilo Shiv Suleman will lead the Georgia Tech community in a series of immersive workshops beginning in January 2021. 

The Fearless Futures series will bring Tech graduate and undergraduate students together virtually to imagine new possibilities for a socially just world, with topics such as Health, Care, and Healing and Earth, Economy, and Resources. The series will culminate with a community-inspired project in the Spring of 2021. 

In addition to being a social justice activist, artist, and speaker, Suleman is the founder of the Fearless Collective, a public arts project based in Southeast Asia that strives to “move from fear to love using participative art.” The Fearless Collective has co-created 40 murals in 10 countries across the world, including India, Canada, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Pakistan.

Below, Suleman explains her vision for her work at Tech and beyond, in her own words. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

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ER: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your story? How did you come to be involved in the arts and what led you to found Fearless Collective? 

SS: Beauty is my mother tongue. But we didn’t always speak in Beauty.

My mother married young, outside of her religious upbringing. She moved to Singapore, cut off family ties, had two children, and took up mapmaking as a hobby to fill her time. She used to recreate old maps with a single-hair brush and a diamond cutter’s eyeglass in the smallest room in our house, barely big enough to fit her drafting table.

Here was a woman who could make a world.

Beauty became both the financial and emotional backbone of our family. My father was a magician (best known for his disappearing acts, and one night he vanished). My mother found herself responsible for two children, so she began to teach art. At 14, I used to carry her basket of crayons and assist her. During the day she worked two jobs to sustain us, at night we painted. At first, we poured the pain out of our bodies, one bottle of ink at a time – our work back then was full of abandonment and pain.

But here’s the marvellous thing about pain: if you stay with it long enough- it begins to shapeshift.

Beauty saved me.

At 16, I started to illustrate stories of my own life in thick red handbound journals.

I started to tell my own story and found I could tell other stories too, which led to me illustrating books for children, with many published books by the time I was 18.

In December of 2012 I was in Delhi when the Nirbhaya rape happened. At the protests following this incident, people came with candles and banners, but they also came with invisible things like fear that sometimes caused them to buckle. There were thousands of us there. Our fists were clenched, but our eyes were full of water.

Fists clenched, banners high: “Hang the rapist.”

Girls whispering: “It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me.”

In my lifetime, this was the greatest flood I had witnessed. We were grieving, we were fire, this was a battle we had raged in our bodies long enough. This is a battle that we shouldn’t have to fight anymore.  As we sat on the streets, there was much nuance and healing in the way we told each other our stories, and revealed our scars to each other.

All the images in the media perpetuated the problem. They fetishised, fixated on details we never needed to know. They sensationalized the stories, but didn’t (let me) heal. These stories in the media were very different from the stories we were telling each other on the pavements.

Fear was absolutely counterproductive to the seismic shifts we needed to see: what we need/ed was more women out in public space, claiming space, in the day and in the night. Moreover, even the imagery in the protests reinforced our oppression- images of women being attacked, images of shadows and silhouette hands reaching for help, women screaming painted in black.  In subtle ways these images only fetishized the violence that we wanted to step away from.

I made another kind of image. It was an image of a woman with her arms crossed over her chest, the word “fearless” scrawled at the bottom. No matter what I am wearing, where I am, what time of night, I never (ever) ask to be raped.

I put this poster online, along with a call for others to affirm what being fearless meant to them, and ended up instigating a flood of hundreds of posters designed by artists across South Asia and the world. This was the beginning of Fearless. 

ER: What does Fearless Collective do? What does it mean to “move from fear to love using participative art?” 

SS: Fearless is a South Asia based public arts project that is led by women based in the Global South. We have worked in over 10 countries, co-creating 40 murals, reclaiming spaces, carving out public depictions of women and queer people, and their significance in societies around the world. Fearless’ work is to show up in spaces of fear, isolation, and trauma and support communities as they reclaim these public spaces with the images and affirmations they choose.

We believe fear is a complete misuse of the imagination. We use participative art to create the (healing) space for people to transform their fears into beauty and love; to imagine into existence their safe and sacred futures. 

In conflict and moments of trauma, we use art to create empathy between people, between communities. In Shaheen Bagh, as we painted images of Muslim women in the midst of anti-CAA protestors, a policeman stopped at our mural and told us how beautiful it was. Art makes us visible to each other. 

ER: What have been some of the highlights of your time leading Fearless Collective? 

SS: Early this year we painted a mural in Shaheen Bagh – revolution heartland, in the midst of anti-CAA protests led by Musllim women. After years of painting all over the world, this was a homecoming for me, as I found myself deeply involved and deeply moved by an issue that spoke to my very identity. 

The Fearless Yathra we’ve just completed has been another huge highlight. As soon as the lockdowns in India eased up, we set out on a 3 city tour – Lucknow, Delhi and Jaipur to work with different communities. We ended up with 3 beautiful murals in the three cities – which spoke to women’s desire, queer love and essential life and labour. In each of these spaces we painted, danced and occupied space joyfully – an act of reclaiming the streets as our own after long months of isolation. 

ER: What do you envision for the Fearless Collective Workshop Series at Georgia Tech? What can prospective participants look forward to in the series?

SS: In this series we are using the imagination as an antidote. Through different themed workshops, we will guide students through a process of creating their own Fearless Future – reimagining the new futures we want to emerge into. After the initial workshop, I will work closely with groups of students to bring to life what they have imagined.  

ER: What about Tech that suits this series specifically?

SS: We are excited to work with students with a tech background. Some of my biggest installations have been technology-based. I have made art installations out in the desert that beat with your heart. Installations that react to the tidal data from oceans and channel them into light. Installations that react to breath. 

Georgia Tech students will have the skill sets to create innovative solutions – this workshop will be a space where I guide you to put those skills to use through a process of imagining new possibilities in a socially just world. 

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Learn more about the Fearless Futures series here. Find Suleman on Instagram and Facebook, and watch her TED talk here