shilo shiv suleman on being fearless & feminine spirituality (part 1)

Shilo Shiv Suleman is an Indian illustrator, animator and visual artist.  In 2012, she released Khoya, an interactive narrative for children hosted on the iPad which the Guardian called ‘pure creativity.’ At the age of just 23, Shilo gave a TED talk about using technology to encourage dreaming and imagination in new-media narratives which to date has garnered nearly one million views. She is the instigator of the Fearless Campaign, a collective of 250 artists from across the world that harness the power of the poster to use art as a medium of social and personal change against sexual violence and gender inequality. In 2014, she was the artist and visionary behind the art installation Pulse & Bloom at Burning Man 2014 which was featured in Rolling Stone

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Majo: I feel so honored to have the opportunity to interview you because you’re doing such incredible work, straight from the heart and I really feel that.  It feels like you were born and you hit the road running.  You’ve been creating and sharing your voice since you were an early teen. Tell us a little bit about your journey.  

Shilo: My mom started painting when I was around 11 or 12.  She was a cartographer, which meant that she used to recreate these old Columbus-era maps. I spent a long time watching her paint these rivers and mountains. I think that’s also where I developed the fascination with magical realism and fantasy.  

I think I grew up very early. From ages 11 to 15,  I was really dark and really kind of intense.  And at some point or another, when I was around 16, I had this knee-jerk kind of life-transforming experience, which made me realize that I actually wanted to go back to being in conversation with the child in me.  That’s why I started illustrating books when I was around 16. So, yeah.  The last couple of years has been a constant conversation with the child and the woman inside. 

Majo: Beautiful. I’m really curious about you tackling such a big subjects, like fear in your art.   Could you tell us a little bit about the Fearless Campaign and why you started it?

Shilo: The campaign started around the same time of the Delhi rape event when I protested alongside thousands of people in the streets. It was the first time there was really a surge of this sort in India. And at first, it was a really good thing because we were talking, reading, and sharing about sexual violence. But at some point, I wasn't feeling empowered. People kept saying don’t wear that and cover yourself up.  Don’t take a bus.  Don’t take public transport.  This fear-based narrative developed: “You shouldn’t do this.  You shouldn’t do that. ” It felt counterproductive because we don’t need more women hiding in their homes.  We don’t need more people dropping us back home at night.  We need more people on the street beginning our lives in public space.  So, that's how the Fearless Campaign started.

Majo: I’ve seen the posters, and so many of them are so beautiful and so powerful.  Are there any stories that came from the posters, or any memorable pieces for you?

Shilo: In one poster, this girl who’s actually written a whole letter along with her poster about how she wasn’t the one who was afraid, but actually the "instigator" of the fear.  She had spread her own fear to her little sister in desire to protect her. Her poster was about fear being a transmittable disease of sorts, which is actually spread from one person to another.

One poster comes from a personal story. I was traveling with my partner from the south of India to Kumbh Mela, which is like the largest social gathering in the world.  It ended up being a really tough journey because passage through central India on a bike, and we stopped every time my bike broke down.  And every time we would stop, I’d suddenly be surrounded by this whole group of men who were just staring at me.  My head was covered.  My face was covered. But still, they were just staring me down.  And I found myself, like, completely terrified and not knowing what to do. I noticed a lot of my fear coming up. So I decided to stare back. After a while, I realized they just wanted to ask me questions and engage with me. They were very curious about me. A lot of the fear was in my mind.

Majo: Yes. During that same festival, you also had an interesting interaction with story of the sadhu [wise man]. Tell us a little bit about this interaction. I think this story is very, very interesting.

Shilo: Kumbh Mela has hundreds and hundreds and thousands of naked men who call themselves Nagas. But what’s interesting there is also that there’s a very small population of women seekers.  And so, the whole time that I was there, a lot of the questions came up for me. Why aren’t there more women in social places, especially in India?  And if they are in the same spaces, then why aren’t their bodies treated the same way?  Why do women have to stay covered up?

And so, I asked this wise man: Why do we only worship the Goddesses but not the women in our homes?  Like, can’t we kind of see that there’s actually a huge connection between the two? And he looked at me and was like, “You know.”  In this whole haze of smoke...  

“If you want to be treated like a Goddess, then become one.” {tweet this}

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And I thought that's a little bit of a convenient thing to say.  But then, the more I started to think about it, we often have a desire to be worshipped or liberated, rather than actually stepping into power ourselves.  And I think that’s a really important switch that one needs to make: I have to create that first step myself.

Majo: Totally.

Shilo: And so, the affirmation really became "What we worship, we shall become."  If you look at all of these Goddesses, they are symbols and masks, right?  They’re archetypes.  If you seek abundance, then become Lakshmi.  Take her on.  If you seek strength, then become Durga.  If you seek creativity and wisdom, then become Saraswati, and on and on.  It’s pretty brilliant because you have hundreds and thousands of archetypes to help you actualize yourself.  So, yeah, what we worship, we shall become.

Majo: That’s really interesting.  I’m seeing a connection between your Fearless story and you sort of realizing, “Hey, it’s also about what I project into the Universe.”  You know?  “If I’m afraid, that’s what I’m going to bring into my environment.”  In the same way, this old man was telling you to embody the Goddess and that’s what you will attract in your life.  

Shilo: And of course, it’s not like an easy switch.  But I still think that there are hundreds and thousands of amazing tools. But with a lot of Hindu iconography, in particular – actually, all iconography in general – there’s this tendency to project it outwards and it becomes into this very large projection that one can’t really wrap one’s head around.  If one is to direct it inwards, instead, and realize that all of these symbols are actually inside oneself, then it becomes a little bit easier to embody those qualities.

Majo: Yes, vital distinction. Symbols are really pointers to the self. What have been some challenges in sharing your voice as an artist in your country?

Shilo: Well, when one is picking up a lot of traditional symbols, archetypes, traditions and trying to bring it into contemporary spaces, reinterpret it, retell it in different ways, there’s a lot of resistance to that.  So, it means that there are a lot of people who just ask you if you disagree.  For example, when I was 18, I designed this one cool mural while camping and I had Hindu fundamentalists chasing after me.  Like, sending me death threats. Similarly, in the process of painting a whole wall that says "Every woman is a Goddess" in Benares, which is a highly conservative city, loads of people would come up and just pick fights.  That’s probably the biggest challenge, all the resistance.

Majo: All the pushback.  You're really courageous.  I mean, you painted this colorful, bright Goddess on a public wall.  That's quite the statement.

Shilo: There’s also a lot of support.  People who are painting with me actually start to talk back to resistors. And so, it actually became into a conversation of its own. It's important when the community itself can face the issue and start to talk about it.    

Majo: You're planting a seed for that discussion to happen.  

Shilo: It just takes off on its own.  I think that’s pretty important.

Majo: It is. In one of your posts, you mention the idea of masculine spirituality.  What is your notion of that spirituality, and how do you feel like it’s different than a more feminine perspective of enlightenment or spirituality?  

Shilo: That’s always a tricky question. On one hand, there is masculine and there is feminine, and it’s not a quantitative difference, but a qualitative one. I think it’s quite beautiful to accept that. On the other hand, when one really gets into it, all boundaries and gender disappear. 

But if we're speaking within the assumption of duality, the masculine is about centering, calm, stillness, transcendence, but the feminine is about imminence, abundance, stepping in.  The masculine spirituality, there’s a lot of talk about celibacy, and like, stepping back from desire but with the feminine, we’re part of a cycle.  We can’t really step away from that side.  You are sexual. It’s like, your body’s going it every month, regardless of whether you want it or not.  So, it’s not that easy to step back.  So I think we need to embrace those cycles and one’s connection to the other.  For me, that’s what the feminine’s about.  

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Majo: So, do you feel like it’s changing?  Do you feel like we are moving towards a more feminine spirituality or perspective?  

Shilo: Yeah, for sure.  I mean I'm going to sound like a total hippie.  

Majo: It’s too late.  

Shilo: OK. It totally is changing.  I mean, even this whole feminist push in India is all part of the turning.  I feel like, right now, on this massive shift.  At the Kumbh Mela this year, I felt like everybody was just talking about women.  It was this constant conversation about the women’s circles being allowed to participate for the first time.  There’s lots and lots of stuff happening.  Even in the traditional space.  Things are slowly crumbling, and I feel like a lot of women are also coming into power, in many different ways...

Majo: I agree. The shift we're seeing is exciting! 

In Part II of the interview, Shilo talks about redefining success, creative flow, and self-compassion (coming soon).

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