Artist Shilo Shiv Suleman's new piece was auctioned for $56,700 at Sotheby’s
The piece is an attempt to reclaim the female body as a temple
When she set out to work on a wearable brass sculpture, there were multiple moments when she felt that she had taken on an “impossible or illogical” task. But as award-winning Bengaluru artist Shilo Shiv Suleman herself says, the final outcome was magical – in many ways. Temple, which was recently auctioned for $56,700 at Sotheby’s, New York, is not only a personal milestone for Suleman but also a much-required validation for South Asian artists on international platforms. “This has helped reclaim the Indian artists’ space. In the last so many years, we haven’t been given the recognition we deserve. So, when I was asked to participate, I wanted to share a message about our hard work,” says Suleman, who worked on the 40-kg piece for six months.
The other side of the story is her personal discovery. When she started work on the piece, she decided to seek out her estranged father, 12 years after he left the family, in an ancestral village in Kerala, where he had returned grudgingly from China out of a lack of choice. “My father left my mother, brother and me more than a decade ago, which is when my mum and I found comfort in art. My mother worked on pieces for months and that became our backbone. It really helped us move forward.”
Coming back to the inspiration behind the work, Suleman explains that her father’s family, the Nambiars, had been custodians to a small temple in Kannur for as long as the family line could trace. “All the men in our family line had tended to Sree Oorpazhachi Kavu — the temple of the Mother Goddess and her Ancient Grove of Herbs. Temples are not just entered into but also ceremonially worn. These shrines serve as a reminder that sacredness exists within our bodies,” says Suleman, adding, “The idea of the artwork is to reclaim the female body as a temple — a site of worship, worthy of devotion.”
Once conceptualised, the idea took six months to executive, which she did at a studio in Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, where she worked with local artisans. But owing to travel restrictions, Suleman couldn’t be present at the auction herself. Her friend Monica Dogra, an American singer, helped her with a special performance at the auction were 25 women, draped in red sarees and holy water in hand, came together for an actual temple-like procession. “I didn’t want Temple to just be an art piece at the exhibition, I wanted it to showcase what it truly means. To get permission for the artwork to be touched after it was already on display was another challenge. But it got the reverence it truly deserved,” she says.
While this was being auctioned during Dasara, the artist, who was on a flight from Paris at the time, was hoping for it to be successful, being true to the meaning of the festival and representing a woman’s power. “I had estimated it to be auctioned at $50,000, so the final deal exceeded my expectations. When I heard the numbers were going up, I couldn’t contain myself. It was amazing to see that recognition that it got,” says Suleman.
While Shilo Shiv Suleman is celebrating the recognition of her artwork, the internet is also doing much speculation thanks to a photo posted by Bollywood actor Abhay Deol. Brushing aside the rumours, Suleman feels that work isn’t being recognised as it should, because of this “one picture”. “It’s, honestly, nothing,” she says, adding, “We are really good friends and it’s just a nice picture.”