On Meeting a Momo Sapien

Jessica Jakoinao

A Ptenopus Special

When I first met C. Sailo, he was poised on one of the chairs that us North-East Society members had carried onto the mess lawns for Unicolor, the cultural event unfolding upon the open stage—a broad landing before the mess corridor. In my third year of college, I was surprised to find a teenage guest of just eighteen behind the art we had sourced for our journal fund-raising postcards. Today he sports a bit of facial hair, evidence of time passed since our first meeting in March four years ago.

Though no longer the same gracile garçon I met, sitting by the hollyhocks, I can say one thing remains unchanged. Sailo’s art is still as evocative; often speaking louder than himself. Now a National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, aged 22, he writes, “4 years in design school, you realize you neither graduate a designer nor make ‘good designs.’ You only develop skill set(s) to understand people and culture, our nature of experience and a sense of identity.” So how does this artist originally from Mizoram having lived in Delhi, Bihar, Pune, Andaman and Nicobar, and then back in Delhi, see people, culture, and identity through his peculiarly wide lenses? We’ll let his art do the talking, with occasional interjections from Sailo.

It’ll have to begin with the zine, momo-sapiens: an evolution story. Of about eight pages and 14 panels it’s a cheeky satire on xenophobia and racism in purposefully facile line drawings, economic in style and function. It took him two to three days to complete, just before the Indie Comix Fest in 2018. That’s where his zine caught the attention of an English literature professor from Kamla Nehru College, who wrote about it in a chapter of the anthology Materiality and Visuality in North East India (2021) titled, “Tilted Views and C Sailo: A Study of Satire in Contemporary Indie Comics.” Sailo remains surprised by how someone could write so much about a tiny zine—pages 169-181. While I remain surprised by how much a tiny zine could purge me of the resentment I’d held for more than a decade. That’s one aspect of reception that the paper could not have perceived—the professor doesn’t share the North-East’s mainland experience. But Sailo too is an odd one. His views are tilted even for the general Northeasterner or even general humans for that matter.

The only child to an Air Force father, Sailo experienced many displacements. While it was “Always fun to meet new people” he would be “sad to leave.” Despite being the only kid that looked the way he did in pretty much every school he went to, he never felt discriminated. “The Air Force School was quite open and familiar with people from the North-East…because Subroto Cup is hosted by the Indian Air Force and our school used to sponsor students from the North-East and train them. So there would be a lot of NE (hostel) students and they would play for the tournament for our school.” It was only in Delhi, in the year 2017, he experienced outright xenophobia. “I guess, other than Delhi people were nice to me.”

Having grown up outside of Mizoram, getting to hear slurs directed at him is common to a point of banality. He can no longer “comprehend the racism.” He just feels part of a “different culture.” It’s all “neutral” to him now. I had pressed for an answer to how the zine had dealt with the subject matter with a clear lack of anger or rage. Sailo possesses a calm temperament in this regard. I suppose that’s how he’s found the mind-space for his other works: Ephemeral (2017), Design in a Subconscious Mind (2018), Representation of My Fake Memories (2018), and Displaced (2021), among others. And to also entertain discussions on trust and design, bathroom spirituality, and intimacy with objects.  

I doubt he takes himself too seriously. His art can sometimes come across as more whimsical with a touch of the profound when not the other way round. He’s also one who looks for quiet fun. Going for giggles than functionality with the brief bio we requested, he lists the shampoo he’s using. It’s sometimes hard to tell if or when he’s out looking for a private chuckle. On asking about his influences and role models, he replied with Spiderman/Peter Parker. And just the other day, some days after the interview, I asked Sailo if he knew of any intangible cultural heritage of his home state he’d like to highlight. (A friend of a friend was looking for insights on ICH from the North-East, for her company’s CSR project.) This is what he sent back: “I can’t specifically say but I find it intriguing when I see my people eating with their hands. The part where they have to scoop another spoon of rice from a cooker, and there would be another person to hold the handle of the cooker. My emphasis is on the part where 2 people are required to scoop the rice out from the cooker, which I find beautiful. Because people who eat with spoon have clean hands and they don’t need someone else to hold the cooker for them.”

His art may seem to many, especially adults and senior citizens, as bordering on the ridiculous but that’s where the fun lies for Sailo. He has a diverse audience nonetheless. He began with questioning his art teacher’s idea of art to move on to questioning the very idea of art. So much so that he must sometimes wonder if what he’s doing is even art. Audiences similarly, are bound to get confused along the way. But Sailo’s art continues to evolve and all his works are landmarks in a phase all young artists of consequence must go through.

We may soon see more mediators working through the medium of art like Sailo but until then, I’ll give Spider-Man Sailo who has friends “equally from different places” but doesn’t usually mix the friend circle, the responsibility to weave that network between the two largely misunderstood communities. When not doing hero-work, he can focus on his leather designs; the latest handbag on view for his closed audience is a beaute. But like in a superhero universe, there’s good and evil. There’s either a good way or an evil way of doing things. If Venom were to be given the responsibility, it’d probably do something close to what’s already happening.

Speaking about good and evil, our conversation took a turn towards a new origin story that’s emerging, surrounding the North-East. A saffron-washing. To talk about this, I must—like the professor in his paper on the zine—introduce Rudolph Zallinger’s foldout illustration for Early Man (1965), a book by anthropologist F. Clark Howell. This illustration in some parodied version or the other is a familiar one. “The March of Progress,” originally titled “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” contrary to common (mis)understanding never intended to suggest direct and linear continuity between extant/extinct/contemporaneous lineages nor imply evolution as progressive. Daniel Allen in The Nature Magpie wrote, “The March of Progress essentially evolved in our imaginations” and F. Clark Howell in an interview with David Barringer in i-D magazine said this on the possible cause of the widespread misinterpretation: “The graphic overwhelmed the text. It was so powerful and emotional.”

Rudolph Zallinger’s foldout illustration for Early Man (1965)

The larger point is that the perception and expectation of linear progress is a false one. Similarly, acceptance does not grow with time nor with awareness of the North-East and its experiences. Acceptance, more than tolerance, grows with assimilation into the ‘host’ culture—language and religion being a point of necessary convergence. With the geostrategic importance of the region, acceptance comes in a saffron embrace. It comes with swallowing the North-East within the Mahabharata; implications of which are too many to list. We were all originally Hindus they say. A simple solution to a complex relation, they think. We may laugh but with successive generations and carbon copies—like in Sailo’s representation of his fake memories—one might not be able to tell whether the birds were flying above sea or fields. But above all, I’m glad to have met this momo sapien.

Representations of My Fake Memories (1×1 inch) 2018. Source: momo.sapien_

C Sailo could be described as an artist working with various mediums but has chosen to introduce himself as someone who loved to break toys as a child to see what’s inside; is currently using Pantene pro V (advanced hair fall solution) shampoo; goes every weekend to a Mizo Diner in Delhi to have rice beer; wears – 0.75 lenses; doesn’t like scam calls, YouTube and Spotify ads but likes boobs and boring things. His art can be explored on his IG account: @momo.sapien_

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