Street art is bridging the gap between neighbours and sometime bitter rivals India and Pakistan. In November, Indian illustrator and designer Shilo Shiv Suleman made a long-awaited visit across the border to Pakistan, to collaborate with women’s rights activist Nida Mushtaq on Fearless Pakistan, a unique street art project spread across three cities.
Over the next two weeks, they travelled across Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi to paint on the theme of fearlessness, in a country that’s often in the news for its political strife. Due to the political tensions between India and Pakistan, it took Suleman 11 months to get her visa, but the wait was worth it. “When we go to a place, everything emerges from a community,” Suleman says. “It worked well in India, so Pakistan became the next best place to go.”
Bengaluru resident Suleman originally began the Fearless campaign in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, to talk about women’s access to public spaces, but says the project has now evolved into “participative storytelling”. “The idea is to bring stories from a community into public spaces,” Suleman says. “More than anything, it is about fear and dispelling it.”
The murals in each of the three cities were inspired by the stories of residents, and made after intensive workshops with the locals. In Lahore, they partnered with Faiz Ghar, a literature festival on the ideas of South Asian writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to explore the idea of inheriting fears. “In a city as old as Lahore, you inherit homes and mosques, but what are the fears that are passed on from one generation to another?” Suleman says. “We zeroed in on the fear of judgement, exemplified by the question ‘Log kya kahenge? (‘What will people say?’), and how to overcome it.”
In Rawalpindi, the team worked with khwajasira, the city’s transgender community with the help of trans rights activist Bubbli Malik’s organisation Wajood. The resulting 30-foot mural was made on the wall of a parking lot, and depicted Malik riding a motorcycle, a rare sight in the country. The text above it says, “We are the creation of god”. “They are Bubbli Malik’s own words,” Mushtaq explains, “emphasising how a creation so beautiful is socially taboo in a society that claims religious piety at large.”
In Karachi, they travelled to Lyari, a neighbourhood infamous for its gang violence and interacted with the area’s kids to create four murals on the idea of playing as a way to vanquish fear and claim the streets. In the murals, two children play cards at a broken building in a garbage dump that doubles as a playground, while another shows old woman holding out a boat in her hand, a tribute to the area’s seafaring past.
The Fearless campaign is also a shot in the arm for Pakistan’s budding street art scene, which tends to focus on monuments, leaders involved local designers and street artists. “What gets painted on the walls is mostly monuments, leaders or beautiful truck art,” says Mushtaq. “We wanted it to come from the stories of the common people where the wall is painted. We encourage people who’ve never even picked a paintbrush, to come and paint for us.”
Even though Suleman is back in India, Mushtaq plans to continue the initiative in the region. “Fearless redefines the street art movement here, in terms of engaging people and collectively painting murals that speak to all of us,” Mushtaq says. “It is not only an imaginative work of an artist, but brings people together around themes we all want to talk about, painting stories beyond the popular narratives of history, celebrities and politics.”
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