Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Collective of the Fearless

Image from Shilo Shiv Suleman (Facebook Page)
It is a common thing to chance upon advocacy and lobbying initiatives that tell you what not to do: Don’t Rape. Don’t encourage violence. Don’t pollute. Don’t kill. As well founded and well meaning as these initiatives undoubtedly are, they fall short of accomplishing what they set out to, often, simply because of the negative tone of the underlying message. Rather than to negate, why not affirm a positive stance? Shilo Shiv Suleman’s work, thought process and approach to advocacy has followed this grain. Speaking to us about her work at The Fearless Collective, Shilo shares her thought on art and advocacy.

I am an artist, a storyteller and an illustrator. When I was around 12 or 13, when people would ask me to introduce myself, I would always say I was an artist – I was so sure of it. However, with time, the gradient differed. I worked as an illustrator for children’s books when I was 16, and then did a lot of set design, illustrations and worked with technology and different media, and now, I run the Fearless Collective. I think the three things that have stood out for me in this journey so far has been the magical realism, the fact that it is all about art and everything is an art form, and finally, that I keep away from conventional canvasses, and look at different places to take art out to.

I suppose the subliminal understanding that motivates the Fearless Collective has remained, having manifested in the form of different prototypes before it evolved in its current form. I was involved in causes for a long time – right from when I was 18, where I was in college and indulged in activism. I was part of this initiative called Artivism, which did graphic design on a pro bono basis for NGOs. I designed posters for the Pink Chaddi campaign, and it became the first viral online campaign in India. It was a simple poster I did in 15 minutes, and the next thing I know, there were thousands of shares, and Hindu fundamentalists were chasing me. It made me realise that something as simple as a poster can do a lot. In 2012, I was in Delhi for a friend’s wedding, when the gang rape happened. All of us went to India Gate to protest, and the surge of energy was inspiring. I wanted to be on top of things and contribute to the movement, like everyone else.

Image from Shilo's Fearless Collective

What I noticed at that time was the continued subtext of fear. There was constant fear-mongering, and fear was a part of rhetoric almost everywhere. Things like - get home safe, I’ll drop you, or stay for the night instead of heading back – they just drove home the truth that one couldn’t be out there, and be safe. India needs more people coming out, India needs more people venturing onto its streets. I created a poster as an affirmation to myself – reading “Not asking for it”. That’s how it began. It is a completely open access campaign, and people can download the posters and put it up anywhere in their cities.

It was then that I realised that the online element may work well – but one really does need to focus on public spaces. That paved the way for our current work – where we do participative storytelling in public places. We work with people in public spaces, take over with their stories, and tell them as beautiful, positive stories.

Image from Shilo's Fearless Collective 

We had an interesting collaboration in Okhla, Delhi, with Safecity and the Naz Foundation. It was a powerful campaign – Safecity maps areas in cities where people feel unsafe. They’d picked out this one road in Okhla – a particularly dark alleyway, which was perceived as unsafe. We painted the walls, with eyes all over it, and wrote in Hindi, what translated to mean “look at me with your heart, not with your eyes”. The idea was to take an affirmative response, rather than negativity. We had the local kids join us and paint the wall, as well. At first, people stared at us as we painted, and then slowly, when they came up and saw these eyes glaring gat them, they realised the significance of what we’d done. Now, girls feel safer. It was amazing to do this in collaboration with the people themselves – just putting a part of yourself in the form of a permanent mark out there in a public space can create a huge personal impact.

Currently, we’ve got a series of episodes on YouTube chronicling these experiences. We just shared one on our time in Dharavi. We had a day long workshop with the people there. We work with people in intervention using art therapy or theatre, and always do this as an interdisciplinary exercise. The idea was to look at personal boundaries and how we create it. We came up with affirmations together – we never paint walls without understanding the community we work with!

A lot of times, when we do this, we find ourselves with encouragement. But sometimes, people do come to pick fights – but even that is not something we feel defeated by, because these fights invariably pave the way for dialogue.

Read about the Fearless Collective here.