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‘Reincarnate: We meet here in the Afterlife’ explores ideas of rebirth of stories and souls

Artist Shilo Shiv Suleman discusses feminism and social justice through her multi-disciplinary practice that straddles art and activism.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 31, 2021

When an artist describes their practice operating at the cross section of “magical realism, technology, and social justice”, and they create objects and performances, it is evident that their desire is far more than creating ‘works of art’. Shilo Shiv Suleman expresses ideas of feminism, one that has both an Islamic and a Hindu side to her being. She explores through her work the concepts of fundamentalism and justice while is deeply involved with the investigation of individual identity and one’s relationship with the nature. Her work is deeply personal, and to her feminism is not merely about being a woman. “Feminine in the visions of beauty, of abundance, the kindness of generosity. And so, at the core of my work is really, embodying my life story,” she says. Suleman believes in reincarnating stories. “Perhaps the story of an asura who returns as a virus that sweeps across the world; perhaps the story of Laila and Majnu who reincarnate through text messages and missed calls; perhaps in this lifetime, the lovers do not perish but reunite after the war (and each time this story lives, it hopes to redeem itself and all of humanity)”.

STIR speaks with the artist about her artistic preoccupations on the sidelines of her exhibition, Reincarnate: We meet here in the Afterlife, at Art Musings in Mumbai.

Untitled by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
Untitled Image: Shilo Shiv Suleman

Rahul Kumar (RK): Your practice straddles visual and experiential, realism and abstraction, culture and technology. What are the core concerns that you explore and address through your work?

Shilo Shiv Suleman (SSS): My work is a cross-section of magical realism, art, cultural technology, nature, the past and the future. Being feminine and the embodied feminine on one hand, but it also speaks of the truly embracing, the masculine. So, we have got a lot of the work that I do. I think the core concern is how do we go back into our bodies so that we can make it to our future? Because in places like India, where time is basic, you know, sometimes the further back you go, the more you emerge into a future unknown. 

And I think that we need to, especially in times like this where fundamentalism exists both in my Islamic side as well as my Hindu side, and there is a danger of kind of abandoning both in order to be contemporary or progressive. And with a lot of my work, it's about how do we actually take this form? How do we take it into the future? The core of my work is really looking at how we can reclaim our self and also our relationship with culture and nature.

Fertile by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
Fertile Image: Shilo Shiv Suleman

RK: The key themes that you focus on remain the feminine energy and social justice. Why do these ideas form the core of your creative work? How personal are your references?

SSS: I was brought up by a single mother and I often say that beauty saved me. Because at the time of tremendous emotional trauma, beauty became our emotional backbone and our financial backbone. My mom started painting when I was 13-years-old and used that as a source of livelihood for us and I started to paint with her. And now all these years later, having seen this force of energy with my mother at home, I genuinely believe that feminine energy, something that in rising is powerful, is abundant, kind and generous and is the future. 

And as far as social justice, you know, while in India we have all of these incredible stories about the spectrum of feminine energy through our goddesses, through the folktales we see in our country, simultaneously we are far from that in reality. And so, with a lot of my work it really is coming in defence and increase of feminine energy. And when I say the feminine, I don't necessarily just mean women, of course, because we do work with women, but it is with the spectrum that in the feminine. Feminine in the visions of beauty, of abundance, the kindness of generosity. And so at the core of my work is really, embodying my life story.

I return to Soil and Live Forever by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
I return to Soil and Live Forever Image: Shilo Shiv Suleman

RK: In continuation, why the fascination with rituals and ideologies of ‘precolonial India’?

SSS: I think a lot of my fascination with the feminine, aside from my own personal history and being brought up by women, really began when the Nirbhaya case happened. I was at the protest following which I went to the Kumbh mela and I sat by the banks of the river and I was there seeking answers and found myself being shunned by the sadhus as I was a woman and I was, you know, in a woman's body.

We Meet Here in the Afterlife by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
We Meet Here in the Afterlife Image: Shilo Shiv Suleman

These same men who were sitting around the banks of Ganga (a female goddess), we are all telling stories about these incredible beauty and fantastical essence of the feminine power, but shunning that embodiment in the female form. So, it almost became into a kind of mission. And during that experience, to be able to reclaim those stories, to be able to embody those stories. The first mural that I painted said ‘What we worship, we shall become’, which still sometimes gets washed over by the raging rising waters of the Ganga when monsoon comes.

Tenacious Seeds by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
Tenacious Seeds Image: Shilo Shiv Suleman

RK: What is the purpose of the Fearless Collective? Please talk about your latest traveling intervention of Art Yatra. How was it to implement this during the COVID-19 pandemic?

SSS: In the last few months, the world itself contracted - our borders shut, we enclosed ourselves in our own homes, and stepped away from the streets. This has been a time of deep introspection, but also a time of unprecedented fear. As the world begins to expand again – the Fearless asks if the world we re-emerge into can be more inclusive for women, to those at the margins? More empathetic? Can we define the “new normal” as being a softer, kinder and more loving world?”

201 min watch Art Yatra video by Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
Art Yatra video Video: Shilo Shiv Suleman

This was the first time after the lockdown that Fearless (Collective) was back on to the streets to paint and we are doing this with the greatest care and consideration given the unprecedented circumstances. We will be practicing all the safety measures stipulated by the WHO and local health care workers. The number of participants in each workshop will remain very limited and all activities will be conducted in large open spaces, maintaining social distancing guidelines. Our own team will stay constant (two to three people), travelling by road to reduce the risks of shared transport, and we will be getting tested every time we move to a new city. It was incredibly affirming to be back out on the streets. We had to be especially careful and take the necessary precautions so as to not to put at risk the communities we were working with. But doing this allowed for us to do the work we know we are meant to do.

Shilo Shiv Suleman| STIRworld
Shilo Shiv Suleman Image: Gayatri Ganju

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