It was Daisy Rockwell’s “New Hat,” a painting of Nigerian “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that caught my eye. In her portrait, the young Umar tries on a new black woollen cap, one with the Nike swoosh jauntily embroidered to the front, while on a school trip to London. His fingers are engaged in the action of pulling down the sides of the cap over his ears; the collar of his warm jacket is upturned against the autumnal chill. Around him, the Indian colours of fading summer—golden yellow, burning orange—halo the darkness encasing Umar’s figure. His eyes have that reticent inwardness already. It is that same immobilising sadness we came to recognise in his terrorist mugshot, after he was accused of attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound aeroplane in mid-flight, with explosives hidden in his underwear.
News accounts recreating the Mutallab family’s history repeat the same tropes, marvelling at how the boy who came from privilege—from one of the richest and well-connected families in Nigeria, in fact—could have ended up as far from his father’s expectations for him as this. Wall Street Journal, like other venerable western news outlets, fell to speculation: when the “lives of the 70-year-old father and the 23-year-old son shows they were shaped by similar experiences and shared many traits, including a withdrawn seriousness and devotion to Islam,” why did one embrace the separation from suffering that capital accumulation permits, while the other developed a deep level of compassion for the poor, and for the afflictions of fellow Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan?
Rather than fall into the sort of pop-psychology that claims to sort out why the children of the well-off (Osama bin-Laden included) may find “radicalism” attractive, Daisy Rockwell’s “cheeky little volume” of paintings and minimalist essays, The Little Book of Terror, offers a series of “big-name, international rogues” as well as the small fry caught in a big net. But, as Sepia Mutiny reports, “the feeling of uneasiness comes not from these over-chronicled villain archetypes whose images we’ve all seen scattered over televisions a hundred times over.” Instead, that unease comes from the realization that “The State is…a makeup artist,” as Amitava Kumar writes in the introduction to the book: the theatre surrounding “the bad guys” portray the accused as the “shabbiest” of actors with the “worst lines.” But beyond the re-plays repeated on CNN, we also see that the State is skilled “at presenting us with people who come to us stripped of any sign of place or past”: this way, we only see terrorists and terror without a contextualising history.
Rockwell works from some of those highly publicised photographs for many of her paintings, giving the captured people a depth that photography and the State’s vision of them often robs. She writes, in an email correspondence, “I have been interested in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for some time. Looking through photos of him on the internet, it was almost hard to pick which one to work with because he looks kind of sad and lost in all of them.” Her fauve painter’s techniques capture the “ordinary teen” who sported jeans and T-shirts, track suits, headphones, and rode a red-and-blue motorbike too fast sometimes. Her painting also reveals a significant moment in the life of a young man: he has found himself in a location where, perhaps, his limited understanding of subjectivity intersects with power structures that had over-determined the fortunes of vast swathes of humanity. It is far more than he is ready to face. Here, in this photograph, Rockwell points out, “he seemed excited to model his new Nike hat, and perhaps excited to be in London.” In a way, he had too much understanding, but little wisdom or equanimity. “I felt like that interaction with Empire might have somehow informed his eventual decision to attempt to make himself into a human bomb.”
Foxhead Books, Rockwell’s publisher, calls her book “a secular missal.” But rather than a “compilation of piquant essays” and images, I think of Rockwell’s The Little Book of Terror as an eulogy to freedom, but also, an invitation to a meditation on compassion: in this collection of terrorists great and small, there are portraits of the unlikely, and the obvious (one may ask, faux-ironically, where the Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al might be).
On the cover, a couple with his and her pistols: hers, a dainty one barely larger than the tight ball of her fist; his, a lengthy-barrelled phallic affair. They pose together in a reverse of the pose that Princess Diana and Prince Charles did for their engagement photo: she before him, he with her arms around her hijab-covered shoulders. The intimacy of the danger they share is palpable, across time, medium, and the misunderstandings between us and them. Rockwell says (on Sepia Mutiny) that this is a portrait “based on a photograph of the young woman who allegedly suicide bombed the Moscow subway in 2010. Her name was Dzhanet Abdullayeva and she was seventeen years old. The photo was a self-portrait of her with her husband, who had earlier been killed by Russian forces.” Rockwell has a distinct memory of when she first came across the grainy photograph of them on the cover of the New York Times. She was “at a rest stop somewhere in Vermont. It’s the kind of grainy, low quality self-portrait people use on their Facebook pages. I couldn’t get it out of my head, which is usually how a painting starts for me.”
Rockwell’s paintings evoke memories of language primers found throughout South Asia, and “old Bollywood posters hand-painted by artists with a keen sense of the fantastic,” as Amitava Kumar writes. They also have the horror-attraction characteristic of the abstract expressionists and the fauves: in her portrait of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though himself darkened in indigo and violet cloth, a field of fire-cracker brilliant flowers engulfs his shadowy figure, highlighting his estrangement. Then there is Charles Grainer and Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib torturers, “enjoying a pleasant moment”: their faces are inexplicably green, and England’s eyes sealed shut in the pleasure of that elusive moment. The caption accompanying John Walker Lindh describes him as “the ultimate foreign exchange student,” whose “Arabic is reportedly quite good.” Mohamed Mahmood Alessa had a fight with his mother before he left on a misguided mission: he wanted to take his beloved, Tuna Princess, with him. In the painting, he luxuriates in bed with her: she is generously furred, long of whisker, and large of eye, much like Alessa himself. We learn that his mother did not permit him to take the cat. Instead, he left with “a large bag full of candy from his parents’ deli,” which the FBI confiscated.
Rockwell has been writing for Chapati Mystery (my other fave blog, run by Manan Ahmed, aka Sepoy), using the pseudonym Lapata. “Lapata” in Hindi and Urdu can mean ‘anonymous’, but also references the idea of something that has ‘disappeared’. Rockwell writes, “A part of me also wanted to escape the legacy contained within my real name, I suppose, that of my grandfather, Norman Rockwell. I wanted to make art without the burden of expectations that come with that identity.”
I would also posit that she writes for those Others who have been disappeared—by the media, by the state, by the Global War on Terror. When I think of her grandfather’s portraits, beloved in diners throughout the Midwestern states of my drive-through American youth, I remember that his work, too, involved painting the fantastic—though his subject matter appeared to be hyper-real. Here, his granddaughter Daisy paints the hyper-real as scenes from a seemingly unlikely world, just so that we (who do not want to know this real) can comprehend the fantastical nature of the times in which we live.
Rockwell’s paintings will be part of faux-tourism pamphlet included with Kanishka Raja‘s installation Switzerland for Movie Stars at the Armory Show next weekend. Drop by and take a look at the Armory Show here.
Her work will also be shown in Beckett, MA. Join Loo Gallery in the Dreamaway Lodge for a delicious brunch opening on Sunday, March 11, 2012. The event is from 10:30 AM-3 PM.