Welcome to the third in our Boundless Space storytelling series, which introduces just a few of the astonishing artists who are contributing work to the upcoming Boundless Space: The Possibilities of Burning Man online auction. Work by 180 artists, many of whom emerge from underrepresented communities, will go on auction September 30 to October 8, 2021. We’re inviting YOU and the world to peruse the richly illustrated online catalogue, which will publish on September 20, 2021. Proceeds from the Boundless Space auction will support participating artists and Burning Man Project.
Nilofer & Shilo Shiv Suleman
When Shilo Shiv Suleman was 13 years old her father went on a business trip to China and didn’t return. With the end of her troubled marriage, her mother Nilofer was left to figure out how to support and raise their two children on her own. Her answer: map making. Cartography had always called to her. At that pivotal moment in her family’s life, she leaned into her creative passions. To great success.
“I bought an old antique map and I just fell in love with it. And I was just dying to create maps and I found a great place to learn that. And I was just completely dedicated to it. So I have completely enjoyed the process of creating the maps and every tiny detail in it. And for me, art has been more of a passion. I just got lucky that I was able to raise children with it. When I jumped into it, I jumped into it out of love rather than any kind of pragmatic thinking. So it was of course a lot of hard work, but it was also more falling in love.”
Artistic expression runs in the family. Nilofer, Shilo, and Nilofer’s son Shaan Shivanandan (a graphic designer working on UI and UX) all live together in Bengaluru, India. They each have their own studio in their shared home. Now a celebrated artist, Nilofer’s work can be found in private collections around the world, from India and the U.K., to the United States and China.
“Although by birth I am a Muslim, I have always loved Hindu mythology. And my work has a lot of Hindu gods and goddesses and it’s about life in India.”
In pursuit of creative dreams of her own, Shilo was a writer and artist from a young age and received formal training in animation. When her 2012 TED talk about her storybook app received more than a million views, Shilo was catapulted onto an international stage.
“For me it was never about art in a gallery space. For me it was always about: how can I have art on the streets? How can I have art interact with technology? How can I have art that speaks to stories and ecology from the region? And so I started as a children’s book illustrator when I was 18. By the time I was 21, I had 10 published books.
“When we talk about the digital world and the interactive world, often we are talking about a very white world. Our ideas of globalization are completely set by those who are in power. So it felt like everything I was seeing didn’t really reflect any of the culture I saw inside my mother’s paintings or the culture I saw in the streets growing up in India.”
In 2014 Shilo made her way to Black Rock City as the recipient (along with her collaborators) of a Burning Man Honoraria Art grant for her piece, Pulse and Bloom. The 20 huge lotus flowers beat with your heart; when people interact with the piece, over time their heartbeats synchronize. It was her first trip to the United States. She returned to Black Rock City in 2016 with Grove.
“Burning Man became a really interesting space. While a lot of the rest of the world rejected art that was interactive, rejected art that didn’t fit within a canvas or in a gallery space, at Burning Man it was a space of wildness where not only as an artist but also as a woman I really found a lot of liberation.
“We come from a country that has thousands and thousands of years of mythology, particularly around the feminine. And yet, as we know, the feminine in India doesn’t really find a voice and continues to be very unsafe. Gender-based violence continues to be a huge issue, and there’s very little expression of the feminine voice in public spaces. So for me, even just the physical liberation of being out in the middle of dust storms, no thinking about what I’m wearing, not thinking about who is looking at me — being at Burning Man really informed not only my own liberation but also the fearless movement that I currently run because it was probably the first time that I felt completely fearless and completely safe.”
In 2012, Shilo Shiv Suleman founded the Fearless Collective, a public arts organization that taps into the healing power of art and collective creative expression. The group has worked in more than 10 countries and created 38 public murals, many of which are empowering depictions of women. The collective’s mission, from their website, declares: “Fearless’ work is to show up in spaces of fear, isolation, and trauma and support communities as they reclaim these public spaces with the images and affirmations they choose”.
For Boundless Space, Shilo Shiv is creating a piece called “Temple.” “When I reconnected with my father after 12 years I met him but I also re-entered my family temple. For thousands of years his lineage has been tending to a small temple of the mother goddess. In that incredible ancient space, temples are not just entered into but are ceremoniously worn. Huge wearable temples are worn and then performed. They usually invoke the mother goddess, but very rarely do women get to participate in that ritual because women’s bodies continue to be seen as being impure here.
“I’m creating a wearable temple, pulling from the temples that we have out on playa and simultaneously reclaiming the female body as a site of worship and not a site of shame.”
It’s going to be a huge, wearable piece. Shilo hopes to travel to New York in October to do a procession on the streets of New York decked in her wearable temple. She’s also enthusiastic about this opportunity to disrupt the traditional auction house, a white-dominated space with patriarchal roots.
“A space like Sotheby’s is a very interesting space to be able to reclaim and occupy. Sotheby’s is full of Oriental, Himalayan, Indian, and African art. Never are the creators themselves actually harnessing the value of that art. It’s always some random British dude who came to spaces like India and Africa and went back to auction houses like that.
“I was very clear about the fact that my work and my mother’s work [for the auction] would be unapologetically cultural, and that as the creators we would be present. Our names and identities would be present in those spaces.“
“That’s why Burning Man is such an interesting space. As opposed to more traditional auction houses and gallery spaces where it’s about pulling from other countries, other cultures, and putting them in a museum … Burning Man is really about creating a safe space that extends into the entire world. It extends and flows outward. It’s the exact opposite of how most museum spaces have operated.
“You know, it really feels like the art world, between the pandemic and with a new emerging market, is really having to reckon with itself. It’s really having to decolonize itself. It’s really having to look at its own oppression. And I feel like Burning Man has always kind of existed outside of that space. There is something very incredible about being able to climb on your art, to have your art beat with your heart, to have art that you can enter into. There is a shift happening where we are opening up to a more diverse identity, and I really think Burning Man is very specifically leading that effort right now.”
Cover image of Nilofer and Shilo Shiv Suleman (All photos courtesy of the artists)