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Painting Desi Icons: Iconic/Ironic

Daisy Rockwell whose ‘Iconic/Ironic’ exhibit featured paintings of South Asian icons including Benazir Bhutto, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, was interviewed by Ras H. Siddiqui.

(Above): Daisy Rockwell’s portraits of (l-r): Benazir Bhutto, her father Zulfikar and Jawaharlal Nehru, part of an exhibit at Bollywood Cafe, San Francisco.

It is strange how lives intersect. I was sadly on my way to the 40th day of mourning Benazir Bhutto’s death in the Bay Area with a remembrance held by friends who read from the Quran and prayed for her soul in the Sindhi, Urdu and Farsi along with the customary Arabic. In South Asia the list of assassinated figures is long. But America, too, did lose two Kennedys and Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. to assassins; India lost Gandhiji, Indira and her son Rajiv and the founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s life ended violently too. And this brings me to the other invitation that I received; to view some paintings in San Francisco.

Daisy Rockwell, a close relative of the famous American painter Norman Rockwell, was displaying her work on canvas in an unconventional setting at the Bollyhood Café in the City with Benazir featuring in many of them. I decided to venture to this venue the same evening (when one is driving all the way from Sacramento, one has to make the most out of the trip). Incidentally, Daisy (a.k.a. Lapata) also happens to be the former vice-chair at the Center for South Asia Studies at U.C. Berkeley and knows that part of the world quite well.

The name given to this exhibition “Iconic/Ironic” did become clearer to me on reaching there. While viewing the acrylic paintings (with glitter) which appeared too small for the available wall space, the mind wandered. Daisy had certainly captured some of the ironies of our historical lives touched by assassinations. Benazir’s pictorial journey on canvas was presented in 10 poses. Especially striking was one showing her in prayer, a glamour pose, and another with her cat Charly. In my opinion “Contemplating Return from Exile” was the best. The display also had paintings of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, Z.A. Bhutto and Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto. I also discovered that Pakistan’s M. A. Jinnah and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and America’s famous First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy are subjects in Daisy’s many paintings too.

The fact that one could order a Chai Tea or a drink called the Shah Rukh Khan while viewing these paintings did seem a bit strange. But I quickly decided to interview Daisy for readers, to discuss how these leaders who have been prominent in our lives ended up in her efforts on canvas. Here are excerpts from an interview with Daisy.

Let us get one important question out of the way first. How are you related to the legendary Norman Rockwell?

He was my grandfather, my father’s father.

Where and how did your interest in South Asian countries begin and when did you start to develop your Hindi and Urdu skills? How well can you communicate in these languages?

I started studying Hindi in college, at the University of Chicago because I liked studying languages. I was a classics major at the time, studying Greek and Latin. I wanted to try to learn a non-Western language. I studied intermediate Hindi at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie, and switched my major to South Asian Studies. I went on to do a Ph.D. in the same department, and wrote a dissertation on the Hindi-Urdu author Upendranath Ashk. The book was published in 2004 by Katha in India. After completing my degree, I went on to teach at Loyola University Chicago for five years. I taught Hindi-Urdu language and also South Asian literature and film. So I would say I speak the languages pretty well.

When did your passion for painting begin? Is it an attempt to follow in the family footsteps or just a recent passion?

I have always made art since I was a very small child. My academic career, which lasted from 1992, when I entered graduate school, to 2006, when I left CSAS, was a hiatus from art for me. Essentially it is not a choice I ever made. In my family, art is essential, not much different from eating or sleeping.

Your paintings have focused a great deal on South Asian political personalities. We have seen Gandhi, M.A. Jinnah, Z. A. Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, General Zia and just recently Benazir Bhutto appear in your work. Have you had a chance to meet any one of them personally?

No, I have never met any of the people I have painted. I think I would approach painting someone I knew very differently.

In your recent Iconic/ Ironic selection of paintings displayed at the Bollyhood Café in San Francisco, what was the reason for picking and naming the theme?

This picks up on the last question: The people whose portraits I paint tend to be iconic figures. We see their portraits and photographs of them in the media over and over again. Whether it is George Bush or Benazir Bhutto, we are so accustomed to seeing pictures of them that we no longer think about what we are looking at. My paintings make new images of these icons, which might lead the viewer to think afresh about characters in history and politics that they are used to seeing. At the same time, there is often an ironic cast to my paintings. I often introduce humor or subtle irony into the works. Many of the paintings in the exhibit have elements that are both iconic and ironic. For example, there is one painting of Benazir Bhutto praying. The painting is iconic, in that it is a simple image with a clear action depicted in it; but at the same time, it is ironic, because when politicians pray in public it is often for political gain, to create an image of piety for themselves in the face of accusations that they are less than saintly.

Where did your painting name “Lapata” originate?

“Lapata” started out as my blogging name. I write sometimes for the blog Chapati Mystery. My friend who runs the blog invited me to write for it, and commented that I had “totally disappeared” — he knew me from academic circles, and after I left CSAS, I also left behind my academic career and started painting again. I began to post my paintings to the blog as well, and set up my Flickr site as lapata. It became my takhallus — and I enjoy all the Urdu meanings for the word, including anonymous. I consider myself “post-career” in a sense, and it suited me to share my work with others without seeking any kind of personal recognition. That sort of dynamic can only be taken so far, however, if one wishes to show one’s work outside the virtual realm of the Internet.

Where do you want to take this hobby from here?

I would not consider painting a hobby, but more a way of life, as I mentioned above. I have no specific plans for my painting except to keep doing it, and showing it to people.

Who has been your favorite painting subject (personality) thus far?

I have many favorites, and Jinnah definitely is at the top of the list. The more I paint someone’s face, the better I get to know them. I feel a strong personal connection with each person I paint. Often, painting a face is like a math problem: you must figure out the formula that takes all the components of someone’s features that are necessary to yield a likeness of that person. Benazir Bhutto is very challenging to paint, because her facial expressions change the way her face is composed very dramatically. She looks very different in different light, and she communicates all different elements of her personality from moment to moment. Her father, on the other hand, is much easier to paint. His face is quite remarkable, but always unmistakably his.

• • •

Daisy Rockwell’s paintings kindled this musing. I was initially offended at viewing them because they seemed too small to represent our icons especially Benazir whom many of us who had met her and considered larger than life. Unfortunately she is no longer with us. Second thoughts and questions do come to mind. Maybe I am being too harsh here but it does appear that we south Asians live violently and assassinations have become a permanent part of our destiny as Midnight’s Children. Daisy’s art on canvas both buries and reincarnates many of our icons. But we continue to prove that we are iconoclasts.

Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer who lives in Sacramento, Calif.


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