An unconventional artiste willing to march to a beat of his own tune, Baptist Coelho is a multi-media artist based in Mumbai. He seeks to re-visit the histories of war, conflict, and nationalism through his use of installation art, audio and video, collage, performance, photography, and sculptural works. His most infamous exhibit renders the Siachen Glacier Conflict through a focus on images, from the shrapnel found on the wayside to unidentifiable torn clothes. Coelho’s work has been featured from the Pompidou in Paris to the Stamford Arts Centre in Singapore – he speaks to traumas and conflicts people can relate to all across the world.
I caught up with Coelho via a Whatsapp call between Melbourne and Mumbai. We talked about how much the coronavirus has changed our lives, how LGBTQI identity affects our work no matter how much we want to avoid it, and how we yearn for a space for those who prefer to be outside of labels.
Kiran Bhat: So, let’s get the annoying questions out of the way. How are you? How are things over in Bombay?
Baptist Coelho: I don’t even want to talk about it! I frequently used to keep an eye on the numbers, but not so much anymore. The figures for Mumbai now seem lower, so fingers crossed. Life in my neighbourhood looks almost like it what was before. However, the virus is still around, and one can only take precautions.
Kiran Bhat: But, all this home time, it must be inspiring you. How has it been affecting your work? Have you been channeling it productively?
Baptist Coelho: I don’t know whether or not I am trying to address it, to be honest. I spend a lot of my time learning how to cook, taking care of my father, sanitising hands and surfaces, washing everything from eggs to packaged food; it’s like an endless circus of chores. In all this rigmarole, I also had to move to a different place of stay, which was difficult. I feel my art and research has taken a backseat for now. However, I still keep an eye on my projects from time to time and, as we speak, I am redesigning my website.
Kiran Bhat: That’s completely normal. Work isn’t just about putting things out all of the time. We take time for ourselves; we work on ourselves; we care for ourselves, and suddenly, something happens, and we create art. And cooking, taking care of your father, these are good things. You’re adding to karma in a certain way, and that’s valuable. It’ll help recalibrate your body, so that once you do have to create something, you’ll be fresh, and ready to create anew.
Baptist Coelho: Recalibrating can be helpful, but I personally feel it’s a tad overrated. It might be necessary for many, but I can survive without it. As a workaholic, I lean towards procrastination. It’s my own way to recalibrate.
In the current climate, one is highly alert and aware of the dos and don’ts. Even the most basic routines like walking down the street, communicating with street vendors with added social distancing has induced mental strains of a different kind. Pettifogging and second-guessing have become second nature to me. Since mid-March to 18th November, I haven’t ventured beyond a radius of 1.7 km.
Kiran Bhat: And, yet, so much of the power of your art comes from tension, and from conflict, and from fear. I was looking at your portfolio, and when I see your work, I see how you play with objects. You put barbed wire in the middle of a room, and you force people to look at it. You purposefully play with things like ripped clothing to create a certain effect.
Why this medium? Why did you choose to talk about war? I know very little about you, really. But I assume that you spent most of your life in Bombay, where there’s little conflict to grow up around. So why did you want to talk about the tensions between Pakistan and India? Where did it come from?
Baptist Coelho: It all started when I was doing the research for my Masters in Arts at BIAD – Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, UK from 2005 to 2006. I dived into it with a specific topic but kept an open mind with no concrete goal. That year, I was exploring how to use air as a medium. I started with nothing but towards the end, I think, I created a mountain of impressions and observations. The university initiated and organised a solo exhibition titled, air(edge)air, which included artworks that I had developed during the year.
When I was in the UK, I was thoroughly immersed and didn’t really miss home. When I returned to India towards the end of 2006, I continued my research work and was responding to my immediate surroundings. The chaos of the city and gender trepidations were some of the many questions I was trying to address. As these thoughts were hovering in my mind, there was an online call from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, USA requesting works for an exhibition entitled The Peace Project. As I was conceptualizing for this entry, I recalled that, when I was a child, I had pen pals from all over the world and one was from Pakistan. I was always very curious and looked forward to exchanging letters with this friend from Karachi. We used to write letters about many things, from hobbies to food habits, stamp-collecting to festivals, and so on. It was always enriching to learn about the two countries’ various differences and similarities, given we were one country at some point in recent history.
The Siachen Glacier conflict was one such ongoing border tensions in the Himalayas that was always in the news. The absurdity and complexity of this conflict prompted me to respond and I developed a work made of gauze bandages title, 537. I didn’t know much about this conflict back then and so a lot of doubts, curiosities and questions prompted me to investigate it further.
Kiran Bhat: So how has it that you have been exploring the Siachen Glacier conflict? Are there any inter-related projects you would like to talk about?
Baptist Coelho: Since 2007, I have continued to explore this glacial conflict and its tension from various standpoints. In 2009, I developed, “You can’t afford to have emotions out there”, a large project which focused on the life of the soldier; not as a machine of war but as a man with vulnerabilities, who serves up to three months on the glacier. Another project, thread by thread, was developed in 2015 and drew inspiration from the various fabrics used and worn by the Siachen soldiers. Continuing with it in 2016, I included archives about the glacier before it became a conflict zone in 1984 and developed a large installation titled, Mountain lassitude which was part of, Traces of War – an exhibition at Somerset House in London.
The Siachen project had a very strong impact on me on various levels. It also went on to give a very focused direction to my overall practice, which addresses the psychological and physical disruptions caused by war and conflict. In the last few years I’ve been engaging with the Ladakhi porters that assist Indian soldiers on the glacier. Since 2011, I have also been investigating and developing projects on the forgotten armies of an undivided India that fought during the two world wars.
Kiran Bhat: Very interesting. Would you like to tell me a little bit more about that? Who are these forgotten soldiers exactly?
Baptist Coelho: In 2011, during my artist residency at the Delfina Foundation in London, I came across material in army museums and the National Archives that spoke about the British colonial forces during the world wars. An undivided India contributed a large number of combatants and non-combatants to the First and Second World War across various countries.
I quote, “Even in Friedrich Nietzsche’s early writings ‘forgetfulness’ makes its appearance in two opposed forms: as a limitation that protects the human being from the blinding light of an absolute historical memory (that will, among other things, reveal that ‘truths’ spring from ‘interpretations’), as well as an attribute boldly chosen by the philosopher in order to avoid falling into the trap of historical knowledge“
That is an extract from the translator’s preface for Of Grammatology (1976). an English translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of De la Grammatologie (1967) by Jacques Derrida.
Spivak’s assessments on forgetfulness, truths, interpretations and historical knowledge have been poignant departure points for my research on the forgotten armies and their experience with everyday life in foreign lands.
I quote, “The memory of those soldiers who had served in the now-discredited empire was all but lost in the post-colonial world. The lack of a political identity in 1915 thus served to rob Indian soldiers not just of an acknowledgement of their role or a commemoration of their sacrifice but also of their place in history.” An extract by Rana Chhina in the book Indian Voices of the Great War – Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, 2014 by David Omissi.
For various reasons this colossal contribution was swept under a carpet and never found adequate recognition in India or elsewhere. If my memory serves me right, this chapter of India’s involvement was never a part of my history textbooks at school.
In recent years, I’ve managed to carry out on-site research of these armies in various countries such as UK, France, Belgium, Australia, with the last one in Singapore and Malaysia in 2019. To date, I have developed various mixed-media artworks to critically address these memories and in so many ways this entire exercise has helped me to understand an episode of India’s past.
Kiran Bhat: And what about this focus on Ladakhi porters?
Baptist Coelho: Since 1984, the Indian government has employed porters to assist the soldiers on the Siachen glacier. A porter’s job involves a range of tasks such as transporting kerosene and provisions for the soldiers, helping them climb the glacier, maintaining stocks of supplies and other day-today activities. Unlike the soldiers who’ve been posted to the glacier, the porters are usually born in and around the Ladakh region and are very adept at navigating the extreme terrain of the Himalayas. Their in-depth knowledge of the mountains also helps with search-and-rescue operations.
The porters and their families play a key role in protecting these freezing borders. The idea of doing extensive research on the porters was always brewing in my mind, But it was only in 2015, when I met the porter and Thangka artist, Stanzin Nyentak, at LAMO in Leh, that I actively started my fact-finding. In the past few years, I had travelled to the remote villages in the Nubra Valley and met porters (of various age groups) and their families. These conversations helped me to get a glimpse into their life, their day-to-day struggles on and off the glacier. Their services have spanned many years without adequate acknowledgement by the state. However, in recent years, there has been some recognition for their bravery and service.
As we speak, I am developing a large body of mixed-media works on the Siachen porters. In 2019, for my solo exhibition, Body-Automaton, I presented some photographic works about these porters, among other artworks.
Kiran Bhat: You also have a lot of work which focuses on the body, and where you place a lot of emphasis on your space as a corpulence. Would you like to share more in regards to your process in merging your physicality with your art?
Baptist Coelho: The body as a medium, as a means to process and confront questions, has always found ways to seep into my practice. During my initial years as an artist, I personally wasn’t even aware of how much I leaned towards the body as a catalyst. This enabled me to address various queries about air and its intrinsic relationship with the human form. The body clearly surfaced in, Kovalam – Kerala, a series of photographic works which deals with the psychological and physical codes of a gay relationship, its intimate frictions and eventual break-up.
As years passed by, the body became a means to have a dialogue with inhibitions and fears within the heroic rhetoric of the armed forces. Siachen uniforms got peeled, bit by bit, to expose vulnerabilities of the soldier’s body. This act of unclothing was further developed in, Attempts to contain, a set of 10 photographs. Here a bare body is seen weaving a mesh with itself to construct a protective fabric that would eventually hold and contai n it.
“What have I done to you?”, a foot-washing performance in Battersea Park, London was initiated to excavate memories of the Indian British Army during the world wars. To view the performance please click here. And a recent set of works entitled, Camouflage, explores whether it was possible for the sepoys during the world wars to not only conceal their bodies and location but also their intentions, opinions, fears, and so on.
The body for me remains a tabula rasa, a medium to complicate, to disturb and to ambiguously seep under deliberations where one might least expect it.
Kiran Bhat: That desire to connect to the unknowable gives your art a certain edge. A lot of casual viewers who look at your work, they see something of Eastern Europe in the aesthetic. That was making me think of something. I was wondering if there’s also something somewhat universal about how we construct narratives of war. And perhaps there was something that the Eastern- European references are not like actually Eastern-European references but a certain sub current that comes with depictions of conflict. Or do you believe that your attempt to bring out the kind of disasters or catastrophes of conflict on civilians is tied directly to a land?
Baptist Coelho: It is indeed connected to the land, but there are also exceptions. I want to think that in Pakistan, their feelings, their ways aren’t so different from mine. At the end of the day, we were once one country.
The land bears witness to all – directly or indirectly, is like a common denominator that knows all and brings everyone together in a certain manner. It would be completely naive of me to make blanket statements, which I fully acknowledge. There will always be differences in language, opinions, views and so on.
Kiran Bhat: So, you love Bombay, I love Bombay, we both met each other there. How does Bombay shape the artist you are?
Baptist Coelho: In the early years of my practice, the city of Mumbai was quiet integral to my works. It featured immensely under my project, CitySpace. The ongoing tussle between public and private space among neighbours and expectations of dream homes were some of the many questions I was exploring. And Mumbai is like a melting pot, which is usually a common trait for all big cities in the world. There’s the possibility to be anything you want to be with endless avenues to explore career opportunities, lifestyles and sexuality. That doesn’t mean other cities in India don’t have these possibilities, they do but in their own ways. On the other hand, Mumbai has a certain grit to it, which is unique and challenging.
At the end of the day, the city is a megalopolis with both, – a structured and not so structured sense of chaos. I always believe that one can’t do Mumbai, it does you, if you get my drift. I was born and raised in the city and continue to live here, which is healthy and not so healthy, I guess. One day, I may choose to move away from it, let’s see…
Kiran Bhat: I’m going to try to rework my next question, so it doesn’t make it look too obvious that I’m a pseudo-psychiatrist at heart. You and I are both gay men, and that affects us in certain ways, whether we like it or not. Do you believe that there are any incidents in your life that occurred because you are gay, which caused you to become the artist you are?
Baptist Coelho: I try to keep away from labels, but also understand that for some it’s a matter of convenience to pigeonhole. And for some it’s a necessity as it gives a certain context and agency. I am also told that a frequent feature in my work is the body, which for some, leans towards questions around gender identity.
I find labels of any kind quite restrictive and they can also be detrimental especially in the arts. As an artist, I want to be independent of anything and everything. One can argue that the desire to escape those catchwords is also a performance in itself. One really has no control over it.
Kiran Bhat: Absolutely. And it never does any good for us to escape the body. Because when we try to escape our body, we’re usually try to escape into a certain type of body, which is a very privileged, heteronormative, able-bodied, white skinned type of body, which we associate more with the Western parts of the world.
The truth is that we are born in a certain nexus built on race, caste, class, nationality, part of the world, and they shape us into the artists we are. Even though I write from a global perspective, a lot of people see Hindu narrative in my work, and they feel that sometimes the elements that I imagine come from a perspective different from theirs. I can write about a family in Peru, but something about the way I describe their family structure and its concerns still has a strong South Indian context to it.
We’re always born into a context, whether we want to align ourselves to that context or not. We may believe that we’re in control of our context, or that we exist outside of identity, or out of another person’s imagination. But in reality, it’s when we’ve purely and completely imagined ourselves, fully from what we are, that we can be most liberated from this desire to be worldless as a whole.
Baptist Coelho: With a name like mine, when I travel outside the country, I often face the common confusion: “That’s not a very Indian-sounding name!” It used to worry me, but in recent years, I appreciate that my name gives me an opportunity to talk about the past Portuguese colonial rule in Goa, where my parents were born.
At times, I think I could write a book about my conversations with immigration officers at airports, who can’t help but profile me from my arrival in the country. It used to bother me but today it is what it is, not that I accept it, but one goes through it. Many years ago, I once even accidentally recorded my long conversation with an immigration officer on my Dictaphone, which was extremely telling but I accidentally deleted that file and that was quite the loss! Another memory from childhood was that for several reasons best known to me, I made a conscious decision not to speak ‘Konkani’, my mother tongue. However, I ended up understanding the language as I was constantly surrounded by it.
Kiran Bhat: I concur, Baptist. It’s been fascinating to interview you. I thank you for your time, and I hope that our readers will get something out of this!
Baptist Coelho: Likewise.
About the Artist
Baptist Coelho, is a visual artist living and working in Mumbai. His focus has been to conjure meaning from psychological and physical disruptions caused by war. Baptist has exhibited in India and worldwide.
To view a selection of Baptist Coelho’s mixed-media artworks please click here.
* Unless otherwise mentioned all images are courtesy the Artist and Project 88, Mumbai.