For several years, readers of Chapati Mystery, the US blog on South Asian culture, knew Daisy Rockwell only as “Lapata”, or missing in Urdu. The pseudonym under which she blogged and later posted her paintings was apposite in more ways than one. It signalled perhaps not only an escape from the legacy of her grandfather Norman Rockwell, the much-loved painter of Americana, but from the academic world, which she had left after 14 years, a PhD in Hindi literature and a biography on Upendranath Ashk. Rockwell first began exhibiting in 2008 her miniatures of subcontinental nationalists like Nehru, Jinnah and the Bhuttos.
Rockwell’s latest work could be considered more controversial. The Little Book of Terror is a slim, curious volume of essays and portraits of terrorists from Osama Bin Laden to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who hid explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. “These are people who might be behind bars,” writes Amitava Kumar in the book's foreword, but who “emerge as individuals who are neither particularly heroic or particularly villainous”. One response to the new work: a CNN.com article in March, titled “Norman Rockwell’s granddaughter paints terrorists”, drew over 300 mostly angry comments. In an email interview with Time Out, Rockwell talked about dealing with legacy, her enduring interest in South Asia and the importance of the internet.
You left South Asian studies for art, yet your work continues to reflect a deep engagement with the subcontinent.
I actually left the Academy for the sake of leaving the Academy, and wasn’t sure what I was going to when I left. I planned to write fiction, which I have been doing, but didn’t intend to paint. I started to take an etching class at a community art school and realised I didn’t know what I wanted to make pictures of. I was totally stumped. Suddenly it occurred to me to make a sketch of Jinnah, which I turned into a print. Then I made more and more. In all I probably did about 30 portraits of him. I was surprised because I had thought that perhaps now that I had left academia, I had also left South Asian studies, and by extension, engagement with the subcontinent. But it turned out that I had a great deal left to say – there was much I wished to express through visual media that I had found impossible to express through words.
What drew you to do a series of portraits of terrorists?
I became interested in the way that terrorists are represented in the media quite some time ago. I started out by painting some portraits of Osama bin Laden. I just wanted to think about who he was, because I felt like I was not able to see his face anymore: photographs of him are so iconic we don’t think about who he is, there is just instant recognition. I wanted to try to break that down. I further explored that with my rasa portraits of Manan Ahmed, where I had him pose showing different moods, or rasas. In some of these portraits, where he is exhibiting the raudra (anger) or bhayanak (terrifying) rasas, he looks like the archetypical terrorist because he shows the set of the face that we have come to associate with such pictures. Ironically, most pictures of ‘terrorists’ that we see in the news are taken from passport photos or mug-shots, which are both pictures in which one is not supposed to smile. If the same person is photographed laughing, they appear entirely differently to us.
Your work puts post -9/11 icons into a more playful, everyday context. Norman Rockwell’s art made everyday scenes iconic. How would you reflect on the relationship between his work and yours?
Having a famous relation can be daunting but it can also give you a certain amount of hubris. I set out on my post-9/11 paintings with the hubristic notion that I could rewrite the iconography of the US War on Terror. Of course I can’t. Who pays attention to art? But my grandfather’s work taught me, perhaps erroneously, that art can make an impact on the zeitgeist and so I go about my painting as though that were a possibility.
What traditions or influences do you situate yourself in as an artist?
When people speak of art in my family, they always skip right to my grandfather. In fact, both my parents are artists, as are numerous other relations. It’s almost like a caste. In that way, I see myself as having tried to get away but ending up in the family business. Of course I have other influences: I love medieval Italian religious paintings, such as multi-panel representations of the Crucifixion or the beheading of John the Baptist. I love the tradition of miniature painting in the subcontinent and beyond and that has definitely influenced the scale of my work. There are also echoes of Kalighat painting and the kind of painting found in Indian didactic posters (such as An Ideal Boy) in the flat, colourful backgrounds of my work.
What has been the response in the US to the terrorist portraits?
Reactions had generally been quite positive until [the CNN article]... The Republican Party and the conservative Christian movement in the US has long co-opted my grandfather’s work as a symbol of a supposedly idyllic past when Americans had solid ‘family values’ and everyone (in the paintings) was basically white. They ignore his later paintings during the civil rights movement in the sixties. Such people look at my work in the stark terms of George W Bush’s Global War on Terror, in which you are either with ‘us’ or against us. If my work has a humanising effect on the subjects, or invokes ambiguity rather than condemnation, it is seen as sympathising with terrorists, i.e., against us.
Your work was online and semi-anonymous for many years. What has been the role of the web and social media in your journey as an artist?
The web and social media have played a crucial role in my development as an artist in the last six years, since I left Academia. ... I was isolated as an artist, having never gone to art school. I had no connections in the art world, and frankly still have very few. Having my work on the web has helped me find an audience all around the world. More lately Twitter has broadened that network and this has all enabled me to do exactly the work I choose without feeling the constraints of markets and agents and the like.
The Little Book of Terror, Foxhead Books, R1,200
By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar on May 11 2012 4.30am