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Shilo Shiv Suleman’s art of magical thinking

The Bengaluru-born artist's latest show celebrates myths of reincarnation and afterlife, even as the world grapples with a killer pandemic

Detail from a work by Shilo Shiv Suleman. (Art Musings)

You may be momentarily misled by the title of Bengaluru-born artist Shilo Shiv Suleman’s latest show, Reincarnate: We Meet Here In The Afterlife. Surrounded by death and disease as we now, it’s easy to presume a morbid undertone to the work. But you are disabused of that notion the moment you walk into the show—either virtually (as I did) or in person at Mumbai’s Art Musings gallery.

Suleman’s art stands out for its luscious colours and interactive energy. In 2016, for instance, she created Grove: The Forest Inside Your Lung, a work that would have to be activated by the breath of the viewer. Apart from her stunningly large and dazzling installations, she has made wearable sculptures, extensively used self-portraiture to speak about women’s lives and desires, interspersed her visual universe with verse, and traced out striking statements with calligraphic elegance. All of these elements, rendered with her trademark sensuality, are palpable in the current body of work, too.

“It’s true our lives have changed dramatically over the last year,” says Suleman on the phone, “but every time the world has ended, it has also come back to life again through the power of myths.” The title of the show is a reference to the rejuvenating force of stories—it’s not only our souls that are reincarnated, as some religions insist. As Suleman says, it is also our tales, the ones we create, individually or collectively, that are revived and resurrected over time. “My art has so far usually engaged with beauty, love and the feminine experience,” she adds. “But here I have been pondering what comes after life, about mortality.”

Mystery, whether the one that lies beyond life or hides in plain sight among the living, is at the core of Suleman’s art. Instead of abjuring the rational certitudes of science, she harnesses their ideas to create magic. Her invention of Khoya, an interactive storytelling app for iPad, is an example of this experiment. Stepping into this parallel universe involves trusting in the power of stories, to put your life in the hands of magic and mystery. For not only are you a consumer of these tales, but you are also an active participant in their unfolding.

A work by Shilo Shiv Suleman.
A work by Shilo Shiv Suleman. (Art Musings)

In Reincarnate, Suleman reveals an everyday magic that remains unnoticed to us for its sheer ordinariness. It is the alchemical power of nature to regenerate and reincarnate itself. Bones turn into soil, and light turns into leaves—we are familiar with these processes from high school science, but little do we realize the poetry inherent in them. As Suleman says, “Our first encounter with afterlife is with earth…. We return to soil and live forever.” Artists, as she says, have the “gift of play”, while scientists strive to find the answers.

If Suleman’s words spark hope, their richly ornate visualization reminds us the brief fullness of life we are allowed to enjoy on earth. Conceived like altarpieces, some of the installations nestle the human figures in a prospect of flowers and vegetation—a reminder of our vital links with nature. An air of mysticism—a vision of wondrous excess Suleman describes as “a cosmic dream”—seems to pervade the entire show. There are haunting portraits, striking in their beauty and suspended in a private limbo of emotions. Eyes drooping, shut in ecstasy or teasing, these look like figures of perfection, much too rare for this world. Their preciousness is underscored by the use of gold, both paint and the real metal, as well as precious stones.

Suleman’s art inside the white cube of the gallery may feel dreamy, alluring and unattainable, but it is also firmly rooted to the world of circumstances. As the founder-director of the Fearless Collective, “a movement that aims to replace fear with love in public space”, she has taken her work out into the streets—by using her body as a receptacle for her creations and also as a performance tool. She has painted gigantic murals, most memorably at the site of the anti-CAA-NRC protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh in 2019-20.

Although the pandemic has stalled such direct public engagements, Suleman and the Fearless Collective are now getting back to action, working with Dalit, Muslim and queer communities in cities like Delhi, Jaipur and Lucknow. “Our aim is to foster a more loving and inclusive society,” she says, “the pandemic has only strengthened that resolve—it has shown us why we do what we do.”

Reincarnate is on at Art Musings in Mumbai till 28 February. More details on artmusings.net

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