Shilo Shiv Suleman on being fearless & feminine spirituality (Part 2)

Shilo Shiv Suleman is an Indian illustrator, animator and visual artist. 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


Majo: Who are some women who inspire you and why do you find them inspirational?

Shilo:  I’m inspired by women mythical, imagined and real.

One woman who I found quite recently is a 12th-century mystical poet named Akka Mahadevi. At some point in her life, mad with bliss, she just took off all her clothes, and quite like that Alanis Morissette video, ran off into the forest singing to her beloved- Chennamallikarjuna (an avatar of Shiva)  “The Lord as white as Jasmine Flowers!” . A lot of her poetry is about the female body, surrender and union. What I find particularly amazing is that when you’re speaking to the beloved, you're actually speaking to the beloved inside yourself. {Tweet this}

It’s like a nice loophole! I've also been working with this group called the Kabir Project. We're exploring a folk story of seven queens and their relationships to their beloveds. One of them jumps into a river to be with her beloved. Another wanders through the desert in search of her beloved. Another falls in love with a wandering Yogi and her whole entire narrative is about how there’s a contradiction in being in love with the people who have no attachments. But eventually, all of these women, they find the beloved within themselves. I think looking at one’s relationship with the universe (and oneself) with that kind of intimacy is very important.

Majo: Yes, there are so many. I can relate to these women searching for the beloved outside themselves. A lot of women I work with often feel challenged to hear their inner voice, because of social expectations and pressures. We've internalized a very masculine idea of success and fulfillment. What do you feel like it takes for a woman to redefine success on her own terms?

Shilo: It boils down to love. When one starts to look at success as love, it becomes a lot easier. If you love your children and that is your deepest, truest love, then why not? If traveling around the world, giving talks and being in business conferences are what you really, truly love doing, then why not?  It’s about being in alignment with your vision. And that union of yourself with your vision is something we all need to do beyond gender. It’s love. So, I think if one is to start to redefine success as just ‘following your bliss’, like Joseph Campbell said.

Majo: It’s so hard for a lot of us to do that even if we realize, “Okay, I really love to write poetry."

Shilo: It’s pretty amazing. When my parents split up, [my mother] basically had never really painted before. And she started doing it as a way to ensure that my brother and I could go to school. She worked hard as hell and at some point, these paintings started to sell and things kind of took off from there. If you just have something in your life that you really love and that becomes your anchor, then no matter what’s going on, with a lot of work, I think it eventually becomes a blessing. Make what you love your anchor, and make it your armour too.  And I feel like this has happened so many times now and I have to keep reminding myself to trust it. Trust your love. {Tweet this}.

If you're afraid, then you can’t really flow with what you really love. In every moment, I think it’s about consciously replacing fear with love in order to get past that volley of: “Is this going to happen?” “Am I going to make it?” “Can I be a poet?” And just to keep doing it. The three words that are most important to me at the moment are : Ask, Believe, Recieve. Belief enables. But it also takes work! Things don’t magically fall into place unless you work for it.  People always ask me how things just magically happen in my life, and yes, life is charmed, but it’s also sleepless nights, tired eyes, hurting fingers. The Labour of Love.

Majo: Keep going. One of my favorite mottos. That love expresses in many ways, not just your career choices. Take how you align your inner creativity with your outer appearance. You ornate yourself in beautiful clothes and jewelry and hairpieces, much like a goddess. I think a lot of us are afraid to express ourselves in that way. How did this inner to outer alignment come about?

Shilo: I'm really fascinated with ritual, especially ritualistic adornment.  I think making things in one’s daily life into a ceremony is something that was done in traditional cultures, and it’s a shame that those rituals have disappeared. Adornment is embodiment. What is a ceremony really? It’s the coming together of an action with Beauty.

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Majo: I think it’s really important, this idea of adornment as ritual. Do you have a ritual or process you do when you dress yourself? When you put your things on, or what does that look like?

Shilo: I've been experimenting with a whole bunch of different types of meditations. One approach to meditation is the one we all kind of know, which is a sitting practice. But I don’t have the patience for that very often! Let’s create other meditations!  For example, the whole act of painting is a meditation. It’s a meditation because I am in communication with the formless and I'm not thinking; it just happens, and I think that flow is really meditation as well.

I think the same with any kind of body ritual. How can we embody beauty? And not in the way that ads and beauty products tell you to? Can one create a ritual and meditation around combing one’s hair? Can one dot oneself with amber and vanilla with intent? Adornment is also a way of connecting with nature in a beautiful way. Honey on skin, lavender on wrists. It’s beautiful.  

For me adornment is also a way I connect with my cultural heritage. I hate that all the beautiful textiles of India are being replaced by HnMs. We need more people making culture contemporary.

Create personal rituals of your own that help you to connect with your deeper self and the Universe.

Majo: Beautiful. What would you say to a woman who is looking to step more into her creativity and find meditation through her creative outlet?

Shilo: I feel like the most important thing to do is to create a very, very personal, intimate relationship with your art form. Your artform IS your beloved. Just entirely for yourself. Nobody else sees it. You're not sharing it on Facebook. It’s not getting likes, none of that stuff. It’s just for you. For me, it’s always been my illustrated notebooks. And in that space, you’re doing experimentation, painting, writing, but you're not worried about putting it out there. It’s keeping your own altar. Like a relationship with a lover, it’s secret and personal.

And then, on the other hand, I feel like putting yourself out there is equally important. When you put yourself out there, more often than not, you are supported, and you need that support to make yourself you. Like, “Yes, I can do this.” You know? I think it’s this really important balance of, on the one hand, keeping something extremely intimate and personal, but on the other hand, sharing your work fearlessly.

Majo: Doing it fearlessly, and being open to your vulnerability, basically. Some people might not like what you’re doing and that’s just a part of it.

Shilo: For sure. It is a really vulnerable space. Artists are no longer hiding behind their studios. Your cup will only stay full as long as you keep giving. {Tweet this}

Majo: Interesting.

Shilo: And with social media, you have to have keep giving, giving, giving, and not care.

Majo: That’s a good point. It might be a long time before you see any return on any of the stuff you’re putting out there. One of the things I keep hearing from every single woman I’ve worked with, and I see it in myself, is that we’re very hard on ourselves. How can we move towards greater self-compassion?

Shilo: I don’t really know if I have the answer for that. I find that I’m very hard on myself sometimes too... I think it comes back to love and fear. Replacing that fear with love is just really important. I think just trusting that, again, all curses turn into blessings. Also, we aren't always aware of how our little girls come out.

Majo: What do you mean?

Shilo: When a little girl climbs a tree and falls down it’s like “Ah!”, and that’s so different from a little boy’s experience. I think we girls have been conditioned to constantly watch our bodies, in a self-conscious way, and wonder “Am I doing this right?” “Am I getting this?” Boys are used to playing rough together and laughing at each other. While we girls have this conditioned idea “I’m not good enough,” and we’ve got to work to unlearn that. Letting go and loving yourself with a passion, loving the bruises, and trusting your narrative is So important.

Majo: Such a good point. That unlearning is a lifelong journey. Do you know any examples of women who are self-compassionate? Either historical or in your present day?

Shilo: Self-compassionate. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that.

Majo: How about any of these mystical poets? Do you know Lalleshwari?

Shilo: No! Tell me more!

Majo: Lalla’s a mystical poet from Kashmir. You need to look into her. I feel like you would really love her. She’s amazing. And she has some interesting poems. Some where she’s kind of hard on herself, and she’s like, “Lalla, why do you do this? Why do you do that?” And she talks to herself in third-person. But then she has these really beautiful poems where she just realizes she’s this infinite being. When she realizes that, she just lets go of beating herself up. Love those are little gems of self-compassion in her poems.

Shilo: It’s funny. With mystic poetry in general, there’s this sort of longing on one end, right?

Which is very, like, “Why don't you come to me? I love you so much!” And then, on the other hand, it’s like, “Actually, you were just with me this whole time. Never mind.”

Majo: Ha! I love that. “Actually, what I’ve been longing for is inside me. I don’t even need you.”

Shilo: Yeah, like, “What! You've been here the whole time.”

Majo: Oh, the irony of spiritual seeking! Hilarious. Circling back to turning fear into love for a moment: How does that happen for you?

Shilo: For me it’s about making decisions with my body. I’m no longer going to put stuff in my body that I think does not love my body. So, I am going to try to align myself, as much as possible, to good, loving food. Good, loving practices. Traditional things that I know actually make me happy. The instant bowl of ice-cream or ton of junk food in bed can be extremely, extremely self-destructive, and not self-loving. Find what’s self-loving and switch to that as much as possible. So, that’s on the one hand. And on the other hand, having a consistent flow practice really helps. For me, of course, it’s been my art. I’m putting love into my art, getting love back from my art which I put back into it again. When I’m making art, It’s like: I breathe in, “I love you,” breathe out, “Thank you,” breathe in, “I love you,” breathe out, “Thank you.” That’s pretty much it.


Majo: You're just a love child.

Shilo: I am a love child.

Majo: You’re like, “I don’t want to sound like a hippie, except all I’ve been preaching about this whole interview is love.” This is great.

Shilo: Love all the children!

Majo: I think it’s wonderful. Shilo, do you have any last thoughts for women undergoing stress or uncertainty in their lives? What would you like to tell them?

Shilo: Oh, I think I’ve said a lot.

Majo: You’re like, “I’ve talked for an hour.”

Shilo: Yeah. I think I’ve said everything.

Majo: I think you did: turn fear into love!

Shilo: I think that’s it.

Majo: Amazing. This was so wonderful. I feel so honored to be given the chance to interview you.

Shilo: I feel so honored to be interviewed by you! It’s nice to share all these things floating around in my head.

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