If you follow Indian contemporary artists, the one name that frequently crops up in conversation is Shilo Shiv Suleman. What makes Suleman stand out amongst the others is that she is equally intrigued and guided by magical realism as she is by technology. For her, the ancient and the present go hand-in-hand. Suleman is as 21st century as they come but one also gets the feeling that she’d be as comfortable in the Vedic era.
The 31-year-old artist is also the founder and director of the Fearless Collective which hosts over 400 artists from India who use the power of art to protest one of the gravest issues facing the planet right now, gender violence.
Getting a hold of Suleman is not easy. Even amidst the nationwide lockdown, she has been busy and as we speak, she’s on the streets of Old Jaipur painting murals.
I ask her about her influences because we all know that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. “In all honesty, a lot of my influences, at least at the moment, tend to be a little bit closer to my own soil. While I did grow up with Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, I have started to feel that same energy in India. Begum Akhtar, for example, used to come on stage with a whisky in her hand and sing love songs and sing songs about desire. Even though when I was young, I was influenced by Harlem and the Blues, right now I’m starting to find that same energy within our culture as well,” says Suleman.
Suleman is not just a revolutionary figure in the broader artist community in India but also specifically in the queer community for her no-holds-barred ability to cut through the bullshit and speak about issues without fear of repercussion. When I tell people on Instagram that I’ve bagged an interview with Suleman, I become the recipient of numerous messages from young, queer folk who’ve gained a lot of strength from her. She’s not just a Burning Man phenomenon but has also managed to hold sway on the ground.
“Anybody that lives on the margins of society – be it women or queer people – are always at the forefront of revolution because they don’t inherit the kind of privileges that others do. So, of course, revolution – even though it’s very romantic – is also sometimes a choiceless thing. Sometimes, people don’t have a choice but to resist,” she says.
I ask her about style and she tells me about Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Begum Akhtar and about how the one take-away from the lives of these geniuses is that rebellions begin in our bodies. She believes that, as an artist, her body is the first canvas.
By now, having heard everything that Suleman has to say and reassured by her candid nature, I ask her a question that I’ve been dying to ask her ever since I learned about the interview. It is a question that I know, for a fact, a lot of public figures would dodge but Suleman doesn’t.
“A lot of times we see brands co-opt queer narratives, especially during Pride month. Often, there is nothing legible enough done by them to drive change. Even in the recent fashion weeks that we’ve seen, there will be a token “plus-size” model,” I say and I can feel Suleman nodding over the phone. She gets it, I think to myself.
“How can we bring about actual inclusivity in the Indian fashion scene?” I ask.
“I think that’s a brilliant question and I’m also very grateful that you’re asking that question because right now, I’m working with a group of queer men and basically painting one of India’s first few queer murals. I find myself sometimes thinking about how United Colours of Benetton suddenly has queer models or Forever 21 has a ‘Feminist’ T-shirt and I find myself a little annoyed because a lot of brands and corporates that don’t have the best ethical grounding can end up co-opting a movement rooted in marginalisation, at the end of the day. Around Women’s Day, I’m invited to give talks and the rest of the year, no one gives a shit,” she says.
“I think its important for queer people to have representation in public spaces and in ads because the more these communities become visible, the narrative shifts. However, I also believe that there needs to be a link that isn’t just about storytelling and representation but it also has to switch into actual policy and behavioural change. People in power need to also advocate for actual change and actually make a difference to communities so that it’s not just naam ke vaaste,” Suleman adds.
When it comes to her art, Suleman doesn’t shy away from saying that she takes inspiration from people who’ve had the courage to be themselves in the past. There’s a long lineage of people who’ve inspired Shilo Shiv Suleman and she says that she does “stand on the shoulders of giants”.
Suleman never has and never will accept that she is a pioneer but that, I believe is just her modesty and her ability to look beyond herself. She’s real, raw, and yes, disturbingly honest at times. But only because we’re not used to public figures speak out the way she does.
And here’s hoping she never stops.