"Log kya kahenge (What will people say)?" How many times have we heard this from our parents, relatives and friends in our entire lifetime? The fear of being judged has almost always crept into our decisions and, in turn, our lives. While we as a society have now started to question this fear, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman is breaking barriers and borders to dispel this fear.
Suleman's The Fearless Collective, collaborated with Pakistan activist Nida Mushtaq for a one-of-a-kind street art project that reflects the theme of fearlessness.
According to its Facebook page it is a collective of artists, activists, photographers and filmmakers who use art to speak out against gender violence. It was formed to "(re)define fear, femininity and what it means to be fearless".
She visited three cities — Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi — training artists in the Pakistan counterpart of the fearless collective and working with the marginalised.
"It was the icing on my 2015 cake," says Suleman describing her experience during the trip in November. "It was incredible and deeply fulfilling. It allowed me to see the world through the eyes of the people I met."
And her art work in Pakistan has been all over social media in the past few days. "In Lahore, we basically decided to paint the first wall we saw. And the one we found was that of the National Bank of Pakistan. We began painting without permission. The director of the bank stepped out to see what we were upto; when he saw what were doing, he said carry on."
The step was rebellious and brave given that many of the women assisting Suleman with the painting were doing this in public for the first time.
The women were students from the National College of Arts in Pakistan. "Putting up that painting on the bank dispelled a lot of fear judgment, the 'log kya kahenge' rhetorical question," says Suleman.
Speaking of her varied cultural and social experiences in the neighbouring country, Suleman says, "We found ourselves in the middle of the hijra community in Rawalpindi in the NGO run by Bubbly Malik. There were ten people from their community in all their glory, singing and dancing. They are called khwajasira in Pakistan."
Apart from a workshop on blessings and curses — "They are the defenders of blessings and curses," Suleman says — they also worked on the only wall painted by transgenders in the country.
"We only see beautiful people on billboards — actors, models and sportspersons — so we painted Bubbly riding her motorcycle," she says.
And it was not just the wall in Rawalpindi that saw help from the local community. "Each of the walls that we did, we worked on with different people. In Lahore it was young girl students, in Pindi it was the transgender community and in Karachi it was children from the neighbourhood of Lyari"
Lyari is supposed to be one of the most unsafe neighbourhoods in Karachi, torn by gangwars. She was warned before she went there, with the same rhetoric of fear she wants to fight — 'don't go there, it's unsafe'. But it turned out that children from the community were awed by her work and even helped her paint. "They were so friendly. Anyway, all kids always want to play with colours," Suleman says.
And it was during her trip to Lyari that she had one of her most memorable moments. "I was painting in a Lyari alley and it is definitely a high security area. This huge army tanker pulls over and next thing I know, I was surrounded by twelve burly Pashtun warrior army rangers. And they tell me, 'Don't worry ma'am, we are here to protect you'."
Suleman says she will keep travelling back, now that there is The Fearless Collective in Pakistan as well.
Asked about the challenges she faces with regards to her work, she says, "Almost none. Miracles follow the fearless collective. For example, we find the perfect sized ladder when we need it, or the whole team turns up wearing colours in sync with what we are paiting. It is the opposite of challenges."
She says that this is also perhaps a part of the kind of mindset she is trying to change — expecting good instead of the bad. "We are always taught to expect the worst. We are always told beware, a stranger can be a threat to you. No one tells you 'oh a stranger may ask you out'. This is what we the collective aims to change."
However, finance is something that she is learning to manage. "We managed the Pakistan trip with a grant from the US. I am an artist and have an artist's mind. However, I am trying to learn."
While the visit gave her a glimpse into the lives of the marginalised in Pakistan, it did not come without several warnings from friends and family. "My family moved from Pakistan to India during Partition. And the fear of what they saw still remains. But the truth is things are quite different from the perception."
"Even when we were going to Lyari we were told it was a dangerous area. Once we cross the borders of fear, there is only love," says Suleman.