Participative Art and Storytelling in Public Space

The Fearless Collective crossed the Indian border and stepped into the new yet known, Pakistan.

I had seen Shilo Shiv Suleman’s work and was stoked to find that she was conducting a workshop in Lahore. I decided to combine my illustration class with this workshop, and it became one of the most meaningful and impactful experiences for my class and myself.

The workshop hoped to create public art in Lahore on the theme of “Inheritance”. The workshop centered on understanding the words and behaviors that we have inherited, and finding the value of these social norms. Focusing on gender and our home context, a mural was painted in the bustling and historic Anarkali Bazaar as part of a public art initiative to start this conversation.

In Shilo’s words, “Lahore is heavy with old brick, history and the words of poets weighing down upon us. In Lahore, we were invited to part of Faiz Ghar festival, inspired by the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. And so we decided to explore the concept of “Inherited words and warnings”. We pass on heritage and history books from one generation to another, but what are the fears, warnings and other words that get carried by generations of women and men?”

Fearless Collective Team
Shilo Shiv Suleman
Nida Mushtaq
Haya Fatima Iqbal

Lead Artist, Lahore
Shehzil Malik

Alina Tauseef
Meher Nawaz Shah
Abass Ahsan
Zaira Shaukat
Kashmala Aijaz
Nadia Kanwal
Ebaa Khurram
Hiba Malik
Maria Faisal
Mohammad Ali Butt
Mustafa Naveed
Mehak Shahrukh
Adil Mehmood
Haris Hadayat Ullah

“The ritual of the workshop of inherited words began with each of us sitting within a book of our own inheritances. Each participant was invited to sit in the middle of their pages, and on either side write a phrase, word, fear or emotion that had been passed on from a previous generation. On one side, we’d scribe something positive or encouraging, the real family jewel, and on the other we’d put down something negative.”

Silence fell as we all got to work.

“One by one, we laid our pages on top of each others, creating a book of our collective inheritances. The discussion was intimate and emotional, often digging up personal histories, family secrets and generations of strength.”

Once we were done, we took turns to talk about what we had written. Themes of love and loss, inherited anxiety and the pains of silence seemed to emerge. Gratitude was felt for passed-down traditions and a respect for work ethic seemed to emerge. Personal stories were revealed, tears were shed. All of us left something of our past, and our hearts on paper.

What struck us all, however, was the common thread of parental pressure, and the need to conform to appease conventional thinking. The words, “Log kiya kahain gay?” (“What will people say?”) seemed to strike a chord with us all.

Shilo explains is as, “From the group emerged Shehzil Malik’s voice, as the last page was laid on our book of inherited fears, Shehzil spoke of the rhetoric phrase often heard in Indian and Pakistani households – “Log kya kahenge?” or “What will people say?”. A stopper that comes up as a reminder to be mindful (and fearful) of the judgement and opinions of others.”

The session winded down with a discussion on what the phrase “Log Kiya Kahain Gay?” implied, and what words we felt had passed down from generation to generation. The answer from the group emerged – What will people say? We are the people, What will we say? A perfect affirmation for our wall of words. We decided to paint a mural with our positive affirmation coupled with diverse Pakistani faces.

We began to take photographs of ourselves to paste on the streets. This in itself is an act of fearlessness in Lahore.

The topsy-turvy start to our day two is summarised by Shilo: “There’s always a good deal of synchronistic chaos with Fearless walls. While permissions to paint had been sought weeks in advance, it all fell through. And so Shilo, Shehzil and Nida had no choice but to wake up at the crack of dawn and begin seeking permissions for a wall to paint. Eventually, in a moment quite reminiscent of the first ever fearless wall in India, we asked a chaiwalla on the street if we could paint a wall behind him. In a moment, he said- Sure! “Permission” granted, little did we know that we were about to paint the wall of the mosque of the biggest branch of the National Bank of Pakistan. Quite a historic moment for a first wall.

And so we begin to paint, when a few hours into it security and people from the building we’re painting on descend upon us, asking us what we’re doing.

We’re taken into the headquarters of the National Bank of Pakistan, and enroute spot a beautiful calligraphy mural by Saadiquain in the corridors of the building. Quite a sign for a workshop on words.”

“Outside, we continue to paint furiously, hoping to be able to finish our mural before we’re asked to leave by the security- When Nida and Shehzil emerge with the director of the National Bank of Pakistan. He looks at the work and says- Please go on! This is beautiful.”

And so in beautiful urdu typography we begin to scribe – Log kya Kahenge? Hum hi to log hain. Hum kya Kahenge?

“What will people say? We are the people, What will we say?”

We decided to use the theme of “Inheritance” to create a message of positivity. Many of us grow up hearing the familar phrase, “Log kiya kahain gay?”–“What will people say?” as a way of discouraging and cautioning against the “dangerous” unknown.

We wanted to turn this phrase on its head and instead take ownership of our lives; after all, we are part of the society we are fearful about! Can we become the change we want to see in society? Can we raise our children to be unafraid and live their lives as they see fit? Can we choose love over fear?

The best kind of interactions started happening as we painted. As the crowd began to swell, we began to explain our thoughts behind the piece and were touched by the response. The value of art and the power of the message was discussed.

As the day went on, the conversations we heard around made us question our own assumptions about our Lahori audience. As it turned out, our wall was also happened to be the wall of a mosque! Shopkeepers came to tell us how they hadn’t worked all day because they were so intrigued by watching us paint.

We heard people explain our concept back to us saying “Iss ka matlab hay humain apnay bachon ko confidence deni chahiyay?” (“This means we should give our children confidence?”). People came out to offer us stools and ladders, cups of tea would mysteriously appear!

Shilo wonderfully explains the wall by saying:

‘Log kya Kahenge’: Inherited Words, Wishes and Warnings in Lahore

In old Lahore, apart from historic heritage buildings and crumbling stories, poetry, proverbs and propaganda are an integral part of one’s inheritance. The words of treasured poets are remembered, and wishes and warnings are repeated and passed on from one generation to the next. The rhetoric phrase ‘Log kya Kahenge?’ or “What would people say?” rings through most households across India and Pakistan as a manifestation of our fear of judgement by our families and friends. But who are the ‘people’ whose judgements withhold us from living and owning our lives?

The Fearless Collective’s first public art intervention in Anarkali bazaar is a reclamation of that phrase and encourages us to drop our fear of judgement of ourselves and each other.
The mural, with deep earthy colours and sprawling calligraphy asks:

‘log kya kahenge
log hum hi to hain
hum kia kahein ge?’

‘What would people say?
we are the people
what will we say?’

Special thanks to all the artists of NCA Lahore and BNU. Our fearless farishtas Alibaba and Shehzil Malik, and the National Bank of Pakistan in Anarkali, on whose wall this exists.

Fearless is a collective of artists, activists, photographers and filmmakers who use art to speak out against gender violence. Fearless was founded by artist and activist, Shilo Shiv Suleman, whose practice seamlessly blends art, technology and design for social change.

Follow the Fearless Collective’s journey on Facebook, and you can read more about Shilo’s time in Pakistan in the article by Vogue, and