Photos courtesy of Kavindu Sivaraj
“We believe given the ugliness of oppressions we fight, the creation of beauty is an act of resistance.” The Fearless Collective
In 2012, visual artist Shilo Shiv Suleman started the Fearless Collective in response to the protests that shook India after the Delhi gang rape and murder.
The Fearless Collective says that it “turns up at moments of national fear and trauma and makes space for collective imagination, creative thinking, social discourse and beauty amidst crisis and emergency.” It has been at the frontline of crucial moments of resistance in South Asia, including at the Gotagogama protest site in June 2022.
It has created over 40 public monuments in 16 countries, working with communities most invisible or marginalized including Muslim and Dalit women in India, indegenous communities in Brazil and North America, communities affected by gang violence in Pakistan, Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and queer communities in Tunisia and Indonesia.
“We dream of hundreds of women on the streets, brushes in their hands, facilitating critical social justice conversations with communities, transforming them into art, and reclaiming public space,” says the Fearless Collective.
Each mural speaks to a broader theme of resonance and importance in the Global South. At present, it focuses on three campaigns: gender and environmental justice, the gender spectrum and migration and conflict.
Vicky Shahjehan and Minal Naomi Wickrematunge are the Fearless Collective’s ambassadors in Sri Lanka. The first ambassador-led mural was just completed in Slave Island/Union Place. There are two other murals there. Minal answered questions from Groundviews about the project.
What are the objectives of the project?
The objective of the project was the spread awareness of the shrinking communities in Slave Island/Kompannavidiya. With the surge in development, rising land costs and increased gentrification of the area, many residents who have been living her for decades are being forced to relocate. Our mural was centered around themes of dislocation and belonging. As we are ambassadors of the feminist collective The Fearless Collective, we wanted to paint women on the streets of Colombo from this community in order to amplify their visibility as well as raise awareness. We also chose Slave Island because it was Vicky’s neighborhood, she wanted to make sure her community was spoken for in the first ever Ambassador-led Fearless mural.
What is your involvement?
I was second lead artist after Vicky Shahjehan, who is a resident artist of the area. We both worked together with the community in order to co-create a mural that represented these women the way they wanted to be painted. This was derived from a workshop where we spend a full day with the community in conversation about their fears, hopes and dreams. We facilitate these conversations through a series of rituals that help the women share their most intimate stories with us.
What is the significance of choosing murals as a form of expression?
I think murals are paramount in reaching large audiences. The general notion in Sri Lanka is that art is reserved for a select few circles within society. Public art intervention is able to pierce through so many social strata and can be enjoyed by all. Given that Sri Lanka has a recent history of creating murals with “nationalist” agendas, this is another way to subvert the conversation – to be able to create murals of love that depict minorities and women is rare in these parts of the world and we are grateful that we are able to do this.
What are people’s reactions when they see you painting and when they see the mural progressing?
I believe this changes the more days we spend painting. At first it is more inquisitive, then slowly the community begins to open up, giving us their input about what/who to draw. The community of ladies we worked with lived in the building we painted, so they made sure to keep us hydrated and well fed throughout the process of painting. They stood up for us if there were any naysayers passing by and guarded us ferociously as well. These women are a true embodiment of female power.
Do you have any anecdotes you could share?
One of the husbands of the ladies we painted began protesting about her face being painted on the wall, lamenting that he had not given her permission to do this and inquiring what she did to deserve to be painted on the wall. We debated changing her features in order to placate him. However, a few minutes later she came to us and proclaimed that we should not listen to her husband and that she wanted to get up on the cherry picker and paint her own face alongside with us. In my opinion this was an absolute victory. There were many more instances where the women spoke up for themselves and defended the fact that they were more than deserving to be painted on a wall – their existence alone was deserving enough.
The Fearless Collective was part of GotaGoGama as well. What was that experience like and what do you think it achieved?
The experience was very surreal as we were in the center of the protest site. One thing we realized was all the protest imagery was rather violent so we decided to change that narrative by painting a mural that proclaimed “We are our Own Leaders and We Take Our Power Back”. We painted multi-racial women from all walks of life, echoing the call of minority communities for much needed change in governance. We also painted a map of GGG at the bottom of the mural, mapping out all the different tents as well as the memorials that were scattered around the entire site. This also got the entire protest movement engaged and we had so many protestors coming up to us requesting that we include their tents in the illustration as well. Eventually the mural went missing and we still haven’t been able to locate it. However, I think it was a real victory to depict a mural that not only asserted our power as citizens but as women as well.
How has being involved in the project changed you as a person?
As an artist and interior designer by profession, engaging in this project in Slave Island has been very important. It has made me reflect on the meaning of the word development. I believe development is much deeper than an improvement in infrastructure; what of development of social systems, of access to better education, of empowering the lowest rung of social strata? I have begun to reflect on the type of design work I would really like to engage with, one that includes communities and people from all walks of life, not an elite circle of a select few. I am also so proud of Vicky and I, as we are the first ambassadors from the Fearless Ambassador cohort that completed a mural project independently. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Women’s Fund Asia and The Fearless Collective for making this possible. It has also solidified my desire to paint more murals of this nature so watch out for more!