How Street Art Is Empowering Fearless Women To Reclaim Public Spaces

How Street Art Is Empowering Fearless Women To Reclaim Public Spaces

The power of art never ceases to amaze. The effect that one photograph can have on your psyche; the conversation that can be triggered by one provocative painting, and movements that can be started by critical street art. Visualisation of ideologies, thoughts, aesthetics and perspectives through the artistic medium can often take on a life of their own when it comes to their sheer impact, especially when they enter a public space. Fearless Collective stands as a prime example of this kind of staggering potential that art has.

It started with one poster, in the aftermath of the 2012 gang rape in Delhi. Shilo Shiv Suleman was in the national capital at the time attending a friend’s wedding, and she witnessed thousands of people taking to the streets in protest. “But at the same time, there was a lot of fear-mongering by the media. It was all ‘Don’t go out after dark, don’t ride the bus, don’t wear a skirt…’ and more such rhetoric,” she told Homegrown the last time we spoke to her.

“So I made a poster saying ‘I never asked for this’ and posted it online, which turned into a sort of internet campaign, with people sending me their own artwork illustrating their personal stories of fearlessness. And that’s how Fearless Collective was born, as a way of shining a light on gender issues and rights, but has grown into more participative storytelling, which directly involves communities facing conflict,” she added.

The poster she created came from a very personal place – a reaction to the ongoings in the country. Today, five years later, Fearless’ work continues to come from the same space and emotions as Shilo’s very first creation. “I centre a lot of the Fearless Rituals and workshops around emotional enquiries that are universally relevant regardless of one’s context. I believe that regardless of the details of one’s story, we all share emotional experiences - like Fear,” she tells me. “And these emotions can be our common ground. In a lot of our workshops, there is no difference between a facilitator and facilitated. So as we work with Syrian and Armenian diaspora and refugees about Home, I also enquire into my own complex relationships with home. As we talk with a group of kids affected by gang violence in Lyari-Pakistan on ‘What makes us feel safe?’ – I enquire and challenge my own feelings of safety. Five years later, each workshop, and mural is as embedded with my own personal truth and experience as that first poster was.”

We’re talking about the very first Public Art Residency that the Collective is in the process of raising funds for, but before we get to the future of the Collective and really ascertain the impact that the Residency will have we need to understand the work they’ve already done and the effect it has had on the communities they’ve interacted with the world over.

The Collective has grown into a cross-border collaboration with artists and activists, like Pakistan-based Nida Mushtaq Esapzai, who have taken this creative protest to those that need it the most through “monumental creative interventions and public murals.” They’ve travelled across eight countries in the last five years, actively working with around 25 communities in the process of representing the stories of women and minorities beautifully across the city’s streets.

The creation of their murals is more than just artists arriving on the spot and painting. It involves active engagement with people, involving them in the creation process, making it a mutual learning experience through the Fearless workshops. “The Fearless workshops are centred around a six-step methodology that I developed over a course of five years. It draws from traditional storytelling techniques, gestalt therapy and positive psychology, mythological structures, and from my own personal history most of all.

We identify a space that we want to work with, usually by understanding what are themes/issues that global media is covering. We then choose a symbol (or theme) that we want to engage with and use an alternative and participative approach for people to tell their stories. We engage in immersive participative rituals (which I believe are performative actions that allow people to get into deeper emotional states) that allow people a moment of catharsis, sharing their fears/truth/trauma but also simultaneously find room for hope and transmutation. Then we gather images and imaginations from the community, take photographs of ourselves, and self-represent. How would they represent themselves in public?” says Shilo, explaining the entire experience and process.“We gather on the streets, wheatpasting and projecting images of ourselves, always in radical openness. Very often this is both performance art and street art because the communities we work with, like sex workers in Delhi, or transgender activists in Indonesia don’t often engage with public space in this open way, but we make room for radical reclamation of these spaces, opening room for Dialogue on every level. Our permissions are always individually sought, and our message is always affirmative.
Over seven days, with the community, we create monuments to the stories of living and locally embedded relevance and believe that when faced with all the ugliness and social injustice, creating Beauty is an utmost form of Resistance.”

Image courtesy of Fearless Collective

An engaging, participative moment with those that don’t often openly engage with public space – that, I feel, is one of the most incredible things that this Collective has facilitated. Reclamation of spaces that are for the public – regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, class and caste – and opening up a place for dialogue. But doing something like this, which would make the prudish of society members uncomfortable doesn’t come without its pushbacks. And in some places, there’s plenty of it. “It is really interesting how throughout our time on the streets, we really see a vast array of responses playing out. From neighbours passing us sweets and coffee from their balconies to our scaffolding and chaiwalas making sure we have our buckets, water and ladders to the nearby shopkeepers storing our paints and materials overnight and giving us free access to electricity plugs etc. What we have also seen on streets is late night gangs of men claiming to be neighborhood mafias and asking to pay ‘tax’ for painting in the night without their permission, we have also seen men passing by and saying tauba tauba - asking for forgiveness on our behalf - as we painted Qandeel’s mural in Karachi,” says Nida.

“But engaging in conversation with them is what brings further depth to Fearless’ work. We believe in ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’. These conversations on the streets are as much part of the story and our work in general, and sometimes actually turn into affirmations for murals. For example, in Beirut, while we were working on the theme of ‘home’ with the refugee communities from Palestine, Syria and Armenia, we found ourselves in a precarious situation between a young boy openly speaking against the dictatorship of Assad and an older woman in the neighbourhood whose loyalties lie with Bashar Al Assad. The conflict escalated to the point where the older woman aggressively shut us out of her space and asked us - almost to the point of threat - not to engage with the young kid. It was a very difficult situation and after much thought, we agreed that this is the real work of Fearless Collective - to create a safe space where every story has its holding and people can come together to talk without having to shut each other out. After many conversations, the woman said to us ‘you are a thousand times welcome’ - which is scribbled in large Armenian letters on our mural - alongside the words spoken by the young kid ‘if no one is asking about us, let us ask about each other’.”

Image courtesy of Fearless Collective

There are many obstacles that come in the way of women and minorities reclaiming agency over their own identities, bodies and safe spaces. The quick and easy answer here, as Nida points out, would be patriarchy, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere in terms of overcoming and changing the narrative. “It is important now to hash it out – speak of the complexities of patriarchy and how it creates barriers for non-cis male people. A combination of things makes it precarious for women and minority groups to have a representation in public spaces – whether physical or symbolic.

In many situations and places in South Asia, people are not even used to ‘seeing’ women in public spaces, let alone reclaiming those spaces. I think the first thing to do is create more acceptance of seeing women in public spaces, and not only as productive members of society fetching groceries, running errands and looking after the running of the world but just leisurely engaged in a socialization process. This is very well explained by the beautiful feminists who wrote Why Loiter.

Now, having seen what this group of young women are working towards and have accomplished so far, the need and importance of their first Public Art Residency become clearer. It’s being organised for 9-10 artists and activists from South Asia, including Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. An open call will be put out for nominations, followed by an application process. Bringing together people isn’t an easy process either when we take into account border conflicts and visa issues between cold nations, such as India and Pakistan. The Residency will bring together women with an interest in the intersections of street art and feminism, as Nida tells me, and who are willing to take their art and skills to the street to facilitate and represent critical social justice conversations in their communities. This is exactly what they will be prepped to do, through the provision of toolkits and the Residency curriculum they’ll be developed and prepared to continue this movement and start their own in their homelands. They will be the creators of their own conversations; advocates for gender equality leaving critical and socially-relevant murals for all to witness on their city’s streets.

Shilo signs off, “while a lot of Fearless’ movement across the world has been very organic, there has always been the central vision of – replacing fear with love. I believe in a pretty reciprocal relationship with creative energy, so I would like to think- Fearless saw me and continues to see me and choose me to do the work it does in the world. There’s a small Wikipedia stub on ‘Magical Feminism’ that I’m quite certain we will fill out over time, that talks a little bit about- feeling assisted in a cause by collective visions and imagination. I feel that way about Fearless for sure. There’s magic in our movement.”

Click here for more information about the Public Art Residency and what it entails, and how you can help grow this magical movement. You can contact them directly at

Featured image courtesy of Fearless Collective.

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