Archive for June 15th, 2012

June 15, 2012

Daisy Rockwell, The Little Book of Terror

My review of Rockwell’s book appeared in the Sunday Guardian last weekend. Here’s the original version of that piece, complete with some art stolen (with permission!) from Rockwell’s Flickr page.

Colleen LaRose

Self-radicalized Woman with Small Stuffed Bear


As an artist, and one of a family of artists, Daisy Rockwell understands how crucial images are to the way we understand things. Her grandfather Norman Rockwell was responsible in his day for some truly iconic imagery. In The Little Book of Terror, a collection of essays and art, Rockwell considers the iconography of terrorism in America in the decade or so since 9/11.

Early in the book, Rockwell presents the reader with a series of portraits of her friend (and co-blogger at the website Chapati Mystery) ‘Sepoy’. This series is based on the nine rasas of Sanskrit aesthetic theory –Rockwell holds a PhD in South Asian literature- and the extent to which tone affects a picture is immediately obvious. The bhayanaka (fear) and raudra (anger) paintings are familiar in an uncomfortable way – Sepoy is a brown-skinned man with a beard. But then we flip to hasya (humour) and shaant (peace), and everything changes; the man we see before us here is not the man from the earlier pictures.

Photographs of terrorists in newspapers usually appear after the fact. We get an endless parade of mugshots and passport photographs; no one is smiling. No one looks like a person with human emotions, interests, or family ties. At no point are we asked to confront the idea that people who do smile and who do have lives and interests are also capable of killing people, or of blowing up buildings. And so, conveniently, at no point are we forced to ask why.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa with his cat, Tuna Princess

In her “Rogues Gallery”, a set of portraits at the end of the book, Rockwell explores the idea that these people, suspected or convicted terrorists, are human. She is working from photographs, but in most cases these are not the sort of photographs likely to show up in the newspapers. So we see Umar Farouk Mutallab (the “underpants bomber”) trying on a new hat; Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (arrested while attempting to join a militant group in Somalia) with his cat Tuna Princess. Accompanying all of these are little notes about their subjects – Alessa’s mother would not let him take the cat with him (he took instead a bag of sweets which was later confiscated by the FBI); Aafia Siddiqui has a PhD in neuroscience; Abdulmutallah’s picture was taken on a school trip to London. Next to a portrait of John Walker Lindh we have the deadpan “His Arabic is reportedly quite good”.

As she draws attention to these unfamiliar images of terrorists Rockwell also questions familiar ones. A picture of Osama bin Laden has become iconic over the past decade and it seems significant, given the cultural power that his face still holds, that there was so much secrecy attached to his body after his death. Another chapter examines a picture of Saddam Hussein undergoing dental care in custody. This is a startling piece of propaganda, Rockwell contends. On the one hand, the picture shows a detainee receiving top class medical treatment (the chapter, titled “The Best of All Possible Care”, begins with a smiling picture of the Abu Ghraib torturers Charles Granier and Lynndie England). On the other, a trip to the dentist has more immediate associations with excruciating pain for most Americans than anything the word “torture” can conjure up.

A chapter titled “Little Green Men” seems at first oddly out of place. Yet so much of this book is about facing our alien others. “They all look the same” is the caption of one picture. Rockwell is democratic about who her aliens are: her Indian neighbours in Allahabad at one moment, and dog-walkers in Chicago (viewed by a visiting Indian family) at the next.

The title of this chapter also seems appropriate for the style of Rockwell’s art, in which the realism of the photograph is combined with a riot of improbable colours. This too is a making strange of the familiar and making the familiar strange – some of her men are literallygreen.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar continues to enjoy a pastoral existence somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, despite the drones’ best efforts.

“The state […] is a makeup artist”, declares Amitava Kumar in his introduction, and it’s true that the narratives served by these pictures tend to further the state’s ends. But what are we to do with the story of Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square? Shahzad read out a prepared statement, explaining his reasons. Yet no one seems to have listened, the media more intent on creating its own narratives of how he was “radicalized”. “Radicalization” comes from outside; it is not how we describe people who have arrived at their own motives. The first picture in Rockwell’s book is captioned “Self Radicalized Woman With Small Stuffed Bear”. Rockwell is willing to be a makeup artist too, and a far more colourful one.

“I don’t believe Rockwell is interested in convincing a viewer that even terrorists can be forgiven”, says Kumar. “There is too much irony in her paintings, and often, also glitter”. The book begins with the question “Why Do They Hate Us?”. I think Rockwell’s contention is that anyone who wants to begin to even ask that question honestly (and this is in some ways a deeply moral book) must be willing to see these aliens as fundamentally human.