When most of India was confined at home, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman was planning a road trip across the country to raise awareness on how street art could bring social change and draw attention to the communities most marginalised during the lockdown.
On August 24, she embarked on the trip in a red jeep from her hometown Bengaluru to Lucknow. When the 19-year-old Dalit woman was allegedly gangraped in UP’s Hathras by upper caste men, Suleman was conducting a workshop on “desire” with Muslim women in Lucknow.
The young woman became part of their discussion and was also on her mind when she was painting two women holding each other in an embrace at a busy street in old Lucknow.
“At a moment like now, when there is so much trauma and fear, for us to occupy public spaces is radical. In UP, where people were not even being allowed to protest, we were standing on the streets and painting,” says the artist.
One of India’s most prominent street artists, as Suleman (31) paints the portrait of another Dalit girl who works as a waste-picker in Delhi on the façade of a Jor Bagh apartment building, she underscores the disparities.
“During the lockdown, segregation was not made an essential service, so all the waste went straight into the landfills and a lot of women lost their livelihoods. Several of them are migrants. The unfortunate fact is that the people who are literally holding the backbone of the city and protecting both the environment and cleaning our spaces, who are Muslim and Dalit, are also the most ostracised,” says Suleman.
She carefully wields her brush to finish the picture that has a Dalit girl on one end and a Muslim waste-picker on the other — they have their palms outstretched, holding up the city. Covid might have reduced Suleman’s spectators on the streets but curious bystanders still stop by.
Assisting her, meanwhile, are Dalit and Muslim women working with Chintan, an environmental research and action group.
With murals spread across Delhi — from Shaheen Bagh to Okhla — Suleman recalls how it was the 2012 gangrape case that was the trigger for her movement, The Fearless Collective. “I was in Delhi when the protests broke out and all of us went out onto the street,” she recalls.
The environment of insecurity led her to put up a poster on the Internet with the words ‘I never ask for it’, and she invited others to respond with an artwork.
The overwhelming response encouraged Suleman to take to the streets to paint her thoughts with the members of her collective, who are now spread across the world, as are murals painted by Suleman — which includes a portrait of Bubbli Malik, a transgender riding a motorcycle in Rawalpindi, and a mural of two gay men holding each other in Beirut.
Even as she completes the mural in Delhi, she notes how almost a decade since she began raising concerns through her work in public, not much has changed. “It’s been eight years since the 2012 incident, but the question is when does this end, when will there be a shift in the narrative,” says Suleman. Her next stop is Jaipur, where she will work with gay men, followed by Bengaluru, where she will once again be painting with essential workers.
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