Art | Art

The temple she wore

Shilo Shiv Suleman   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Shilo Shiv Suleman is the founder-director of the Fearless Collective, where she helps over 400 artists protest against gender violence through their work. But last week, the outspoken Indian contemporary artist, 32, made news for her installation, Temple, showcased at the charity auction event, Boundless Space, by Sotheby’s and Burning Man Project. Presented at an estimate of $30,000-$50,000 and eventually sold for $56,700, Temple is a wearable installation and a ‘ritual performance’. Suleman says it reclaims not just her connection to her family's history but also sees the female body as a site of devotion.

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With an Instagram following of about 54,000, the artist has been successful with various mediums of expression. At 16, she illustrated stories of her life in thick red hand-bound journals. “I found I could tell other stories too, which led to me illustrating books for children, with 10 published books by the time I was 18, and a TED talk with a million views when I was 21,” she says. Temple, in brass with semi-precious stones, has its origins in a small temple in Kannur, Kerala. Suleman shares how her father’s Nambiar family had been custodians of this temple and had “tended to Sree Oorpazhachi Kavu, the temple of the Mother Goddess and her Ancient Grove of Herbs”. She talks about meeting her estranged father in that temple back in December 2019, before she created this work during the pandemic’s second wave.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Shilo Shiv Suleman wearing the ‘Temple’

Shilo Shiv Suleman wearing the ‘Temple’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

You have introduced this piece of art during the ‘season of the goddess’.

Indeed, this is the season of the goddess. While in Indian culture, the goddess has been worshipped outside of ourselves, rarely have we, as Indian women, embodied the same kind of reverence and sacredness that is bestowed upon temples or idols inside temples. So for me, Temple was really a reclamation of the goddess inside of us and inside every woman. This piece is inspired by the dancers in Kerala who channel the mother goddess. But it's only men who are allowed to perform and channel these energies. In a lot of Indian traditions, there's a belief that women are not powerful enough to hold the divine feminine inside of themselves. So this piece is really challenging some of those notions, especially during Navratri, as we are counting down every night and making these hawans for the goddess as a reminder that the goddess exists inside all of us.

Temple has a connection with your family from both sides, doesn’t it?

It was made in Jaipur at my studio in Hawa Mahal. I worked with artisans from the Lohar community. My grandfather Haji Suleman is from the Lohar community and was a metal worker, so it is a very interesting amalgamation of both sides of my family. The conceptualisation of the piece started during the second wave in India, which was, as we all know, pretty horrific. And in that deep and dark time, I found myself making this piece almost as a soft light and a remembrance of power. I moved to Rajasthan, where over a period of three months I worked on making the 40-kilo (brass) piece around my body. I wanted it to exist as something that could be worn on my body but could also be an altar, and a temple in its own way.

Suleman’s ‘Temple’

Suleman’s ‘Temple’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Tell us about that moment in Kannur, a homecoming, when you ‘found’ your father and yourself.

In a moment of tremendous uncertainty and fear in our lives, when my father vanished to China without notice, my mother and I began to paint. Nilofer Suleman found herself responsible for two children, and started to teach art. At 14, I used to carry her basket of crayons, and assist her. During the day she worked two jobs to sustain us, at night we painted. At 16, I started to tell my own story… I took on my Muslim mother’s maiden name (Suleman) and the rest is our art history. But while that story is often told, that is just one part of my story, and one part of my lineage. Twelve years after his departure, after many years of self-work, I decided to seek out my estranged father in our ancestral village in Kerala, where he had returned grudgingly from China out of a lack of choice. That afternoon in December 2019, I found him, but I also found myself. As soon as we stepped beyond the threshold into the temple’s ancient embrace, I felt like I found my way back to my bone and lineage.

At a time when the feminine has been so long ignored…these altars become reminders of our own sacredness.

Do you think the winning bidder will honour the traditions of devotion... as you mentioned on Instagram, to be “adored, adorned, incanted to and inherited”?

I do really hope that the person who's taking my temple home will honor it as a living object, because I know I have. The piece was blessed in a temple in Rajasthan, and then blessed again in New York, when 25 South Asian women [were part of a] beautiful temple procession inside the auction house, led by my friend and musician, Monica Dogra. They went into Sotheby's all dripping in red with bowls of incense and ritual. I do believe that whoever has purchased this piece will continue to treat it like that.

Shilo Shiv Suleman

Shilo Shiv Suleman   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Can we expect other wearable shrines?

We’re celebrating nine different manifestations of the feminine. Be it in her blissful state, her angry state, her enraged state, state of power. Her mother archetype. And yet the feminine continues to be so disrespected across the world. But I do believe that there is a radical rising right now, a radical reclamation of that shape of that feminine force inside of our bodies. So there will be many, many beautiful temples and variable friends that I create over the next few years. And I do believe that our future will be female.

How can we encourage more representation of Indian art at international platforms?

For me, it was interesting that a temple was not treated as a dead object inside an auction house…I think when we talk about representing Indian art on international platforms, it's also a reclamation of what Indian art can be. And it doesn't have to be something that's put inside a frame or inside a box. It can be something which is so close to us. It's something that is used, something that is worshipped.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 9:17:03 PM |

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