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We protest by creating beauty

Meet the artists and activists writing love letters on the streets.

Credit: all images painted or photographed by Shilo Shiv Suleman and the Fearless Collective. Some rights reserved.

My love,

It was four years ago that I started spilling onto the streets. There were thousands of us there. Our fists were clenched but our eyes were full of water. We came with all our heavy sorrows but backbones pulled up straight. I had the scar of a man who touched me on my hipbone. My mother showed me a scar she had been carrying for over 40 years. This night, for the first time, she slowly un-wrapped it and took it with her to the streets.

Here, at these protests following the gang-rape of a 21 year old girl in New Delhi in 2012, people came with candles and banners, but they also came with invisible things like fear that sometimes caused them to buckle.

Fists clenched, banners alight: “Hang the rapist”.

Girls whispering: “It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me” (well, it was you. It is always you).

People saying: “dark daughters, don’t go out at night, don’t attract attention to yourself, don’t take a taxi home, don’t breathe too heavy, don’t smile at strangers, don’t show too much skin, don’t look too meek. It could have been you. It could have been you. It could have been you.”

Others saying: “Break the silence.”

Does breaking the silence always have to look like shattered glass? Can’t we have another metaphor instead—to fill the silence, spill into silence, reclaim silence and transform it?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter to all the men, to all the women I knew, to all those voices on the street. What is it about making injuries public that quickens their healing? When I had my first physical injury (a fractured rib), people gathered around me, helping me to make my way through elevators, train stations and months of recovery. What if I had kept it to myself? What is it about emotional injuries that make us feel as though we need to heal from them alone?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter, but back then I wrote with pictures, so I made a poster instead.

It was an image of a woman with her arms crossed over her chest, the word “fearless” scrawled at the bottom. Soon there were hundreds of these posters online, these letters, from communities and protestors and new friends near and far. And then we went back onto the streets, this time with painted hands and ladders. We painted by the bank of the river in Varanasi, in the slums of Dharavi,  and with women. We opened our stories through rituals. We took pictures of each other and projected them onto walls. We gathered our skirts, our secrets and we spilled open. And as we painted, we started to hear other voices on the streets.

One of them insisted: “this should be a boy riding the bike.”

The voice came from a young man of no more than 20 years watching us from the curb. Women clad in shawls stood high on the scaffolding that we had placed against the wall to paint—an unusual sight for where we were standing (a car service station in Rawalpindi, Pakistan); an even more unusual one in his own mind.

We were painting a transgender person riding a motorcycle, exhaling flowers. The image was a story—a true story. In a world molded into binaries we wanted to carve out space for something different—something transgender, or just a woman or anyone who stands in resistance to these categories. In Pakistan, there were certainly no images like this. The person in the image lived down the road from the car-service station. Most of the people in that neighborhood had never visited their house. They had been neighbours for almost 16 years. Sixteen years is a long time never to be seen as your true self.

Another voice in another place:  “Assad is our hero.”

It was an older woman watching carefully from the window of her second-floor apartment in Bourj Hammoud in Lebanon, seemingly amused by the potluck of people carrying their languages and colours across the large five-story scaffolding where we were painting. We were in a cozy corner of a primarily Syrian-Armenian neighbourhood.

We were painting a story there too. In fact we were folding many stories into one. In a world constantly in movement, does it matter if our point of departure is war, homophobia, economic opportunities or love?  Home is what we all seek, and eventually, should find. The image we created was partly a story of an adolescent boy born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, now struggling to make a home in Lebanon. Assad was not his hero.

These stories are separated by many months and many miles, but they are tied together by the underlying fears that formed the opinions of everyone involved.

The fact that for 16 years a transgender person living in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi is still considered an outsider, or that a woman in Beirut felt threatened by an adolescent boy who didn’t share her ideals, are not just differences of opinion. They are fears that leave long trails; that become emotional injuries; that get inherited and become generational; forming cultures, politics, and eventually systems of oppression.

How do we protest a system of oppression that is fed by injuries and fears kept hidden? We protest by creating beauty. That’s the work of Fearless Collective.

Fearless Collective creates spaces to move from fear to love, drifting away from a system of messaging that is stewed in anger, and from individual opinions to the language of collective affirmation.

In the four years since our inception, we’ve painted numerous affirmations on streets around the world, some in words and some in symbols; some unsaid or unwritten, and some secretly tucked into the hair of a person that we’re painting—but always an affirmation of moving from fear to love.

We’ve painted monuments to the living communities that inhabit these spaces; women protesting politicians who continue to live with impunity despite rape charges against them; and indigenous people reclaiming sacred land that was taken away from them in brutal massacres.

Our banners and tongues aren’t laden with slogans: “Stop War”, “Save the Tigers”, “Stop violence against women.” Our words are invocations that build the imagined city we want to inhabit. When we are sold a pair of shoes through images in public space, we are also sold a sense of ‘empowerment’ and self fulfillment, and yet in social justice movements the actions we take for the earth and its people seem to come as a last resort. We need to examine the anxiety that gets associated with this sense of urgency. The impulse for movement can come from a fear of loss, yes, but it must also come from the recognition of love.

The things that we say under our breath often shift us. We need our movements to be affirmative and inward. Like planets, our outer revolutions must come from deep interior forces. So:

The transgender person riding a motorcycle in all their glory at the car-service station in Rawalpindi affirms ہم ہیں تخلیقِ خدا: ‘I am a creation of God’.

That wall in Bourj Hammoud, layered with bullet holes and stories of displacement in Beirut, now says բարի գալուստ, հազար բարի: “A thousand times welcome.”

A young girl and her cat look up at the Goddess Durga and her tiger by the banks of the river Ganges in Benaras (Varanasi) and affirm, “What we worship, we shall become.”

A street in Okhla, South Delhi demands बुरी नज़र वाले दिल से देखो आँखों से नहीं:You who stare! See me with your heart, not with your eyes.”

At a train station in Chennai, a Tamil film heroine asserts நான் என் கதாநாயகன்:” I am my own hero.”

In an alleyway in the small town of Bogor in Indonesia, a sex worker lying across from a mosque says Aku Adalah Kamu:” “I am, as you are.”

A black body wearing nothing in protest in Johannesburg says “I wear my body without shame.”

A mural in an indigenous village square in Bah’ia, Brazil says “nos protegemos que nos protégé: “We protect, what protects us.”

These affirmations are our open letters to the world. They are rooted in a moment in time, but live on the streets for all those who pass them, and see themselves inside them.

People write letters to make their invisible emotional histories visible—to lovers, friends, editors, politicians and cities. Letters full of stories, sentiments, fears, injuries, protests, affirmations, love and more. Just as old letters between scientists, diplomats and intellectuals go into archives and become part of our shared world history, we want to take our own letters and affirmations and archive them on the streets.

Open letters are intimate and introspective, but they are offered to the public. So we want to invite you to write your own open letter—to a friend, lover, parent, president, sibling, neighbour, country, land, home or yourself. You can write in any language—visual, verbal, poems, symbols, or colors, and we’ll find a home for it somewhere on the streets of the world.

You can send us your letters at this email address: fearlesscollective@gmail.com. We’ll send you redesigned/enlarged files and further instructions on pasting your letters onto your own streets too if that’s what you want to do.

Follow the conversation digitally on #fearlessopenletters, and find out where yours end up. We’ll also be publishing a selection on Transformation.

By sending us your letter, you will become part of a collective that’s exploring choosing love over fear, compassion over defense and abundance over scarcity, all through collective imagination. We aspire to grow as a movement of people-led narratives of personal and political change. Send us your letters and join the journey. 

About the author

Shilo Shiv Suleman is an Indian artist whose work lies at the intersection of magical realism, technology, art and social justice. She started the Fearless Collective in 2012. Nida Mushtaq is an activist from Pakistan whose work focuses on programming for social development embedded in critical narratives of local relevance. Together they run Fearless Collective from across the border, united by their love for poetry, beauty and imagination. Love more at fearlesscollective.org.


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