Once you’ve seen Pervez Musharraf posing with a Pekingese, or Vladimir Putin snuggling up to a poodle, it’s hard to think of these 21st-century strongmen in the same way ever again. That’s fine with Daisy Rockwell. Such geopolitical titans are rendered fluffy, with a touch of glitter, by her brush strokes.
“The images are 100 percent real,” insists the artist. Well, except for that one of Mahmud Ahmadinejad cradling a cat. That one, she says with a chuckle, was inspired by a photograph she saw of a protester with a sign that read, “Putting the Purr in Persian.” “I don’t know what they were trying to say,” confesses Rockwell. “But the phrase stuck in my mind.”
Until now, Rockwell has only exhibited her quirky paintings on the blog Chapati Mystery under the nom de plume Lapata (Urdu for missing). But she is venturing into the real world. Her debut exhibition, Iconic/Ironic, is at the Bollyhood Café, a playful new lounge in San Francisco’s hopping Mission District. The works she’s showing include a parade of Benazir Bhuttos in nail-polish-bright colors. Fidel Castro is there, backed by a Barbie-pink altar, and you’ll find Hillary Clinton in a metallic pantsuit balancing Socks the cat.
Rockwell wasn’t sure what audiences would make of it all. “When you are dealing with icons, you can’t control how people react,” she says, noting that “people react to the icon and then react to the depicted character later. [They] have really strong feelings about these people.”
She recalls a period in which she obsessively painted portraits of Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. An Indian-American friend who came to dinner was disturbed to find 30 Jinnahs staring down at him from the wall. “He said, ‘How could you have painted this monster?’” Though Jinnah is considered by many Indians to be the man who forced the partition of the subcontinent, Rockwell didn’t think her Chicago-raised friend was all that in touch with his roots. Still, she recognizes that the iconic and the ironic make uneasy bedfellows.
Rockwell has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the iconic. Her grandfather was Norman Rockwell. The world remembers him for his heartwarming portrayals of Americana, but she knew the man himself. He died when she was only 9, but she still remembers visiting him in his studio. “He was quite silent but would then suddenly say bizarre little quotations from poems and old songs. It’s almost as if he communicated in motifs,” she says.
In art class, Daisy Rockwell disliked owning up to her lineage. She gave up painting and focused instead on studying Hindu literature (after enrolling in a Hindi class on a whim). Eventually, she found herself running the Center for South Asia Studies at Berkeley. Then one day she signed up for an etching class, and the first image she made was of Jinnah. That led to another. And another. Before long she had scores of prints and paintings. “For 15 years I had not been processing any information visually,” she says. “There was a backlog.”
Now that she’s painting again, Rockwell realizes she is connected to her grandfather in ways she never imagined. People think Norman Rockwell captured the “authentic reality of this country” with snapshots of real life. Few realize that all of his paintings were meticulously created in his studio with the help of a photographer. Her paintings come from photographs, too—except she finds them on the Internet and in newspaper stories.
Still, the differences between them are more striking than the similarities. “My grandfather was in a way the opposite of me,” she says. “He made ordinary situations iconic.” Daisy Rockwell makes icons into ordinary people—with the help of cats, dogs, and a healthy dose of irony.
Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and a frequent contributor to California. His profile of Sylvia Sellers-García appeared in the March/April issue.