Tuna Princess

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Tuna Princess by Daisy Rockwell

**Mohamed Mahmood Alessa was arrested with his friend (and co-conspirator) on the way to join a militant group in Somalia. His mother has said that he wanted to take his cat, Tuna Princess, with him, but she did not allow it and they argued. **

Acrylic on wooden panel, 14″ x 14″

I haven’t unpacked my bags yet. Just yesterday I was in North Adams, Massachusetts, where I had driven on Thursday to attend the opening of Rasgulla, Daisy Rockwell’s art-show. (Daisy is a wonderful artist whose work I hadn’t known about till only a few months ago; I have met her since, and regard her as a close friend.) The exhibition in North Adams of Diasy’s paintings draws upon the idea of what Sanskrit aestheticians called “rasas,” the nine perfected moods, distillations of human emotions into a pure form. An important part of the exhibition is Daisy’s exploration of “political rasas,” her attempt to take fleeting news-images of public figures and turn them into physical objects. You see the painting of the Ayatollah in a purple forest; Barack Obama as a boy, standing on the tarmac with his father’s arms around him; Sarah Palin, wearing red shoes, sitting on a sofa, surrounded by dead animals. For me, the greatest interest lay in Daisy’s paintings of those accused of terrorist acts. I have long held that many of the writers and artists working in the aftermath of 9/11 have presented a faux familiarity with the so-called terrorist mind. Daisy’s art makes no such claims. It returns us to what is real–and therefore surprising–about human lives. She has painted portraits of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and there must be some bravery involved in putting these up on the walls of a gallery, but what Daisy is especially good at is painting those one would call ordinary terrorists. These are people who might be behind bars but in the paintings emerge as individuals, as individuals who are neither particularly heroic nor particularly villainous. This isn’t what DeLillo was writing about in a story that invoked Gerhard Richter–this isn’t about a viewer seeing that even terrorists can be forgiven. There is too much irony in Daisy’s paintings, and often, also glitter. There is ambiguity, perhaps, and more than that, a plain sense of attention. It is as if in an effort to find more about the world in which we are living, a world where the war on terror is a fact, the artist has finally found a human face.

But the state lacks all subtlety. Earlier this evening, I read that a six-year-old girl from Ohio, Alyssa Thomas, has been put on a “no-fly” list. Her father, Santhosh Thomas, a doctor, has readily admitted that Alyssa has probably been mean to her sister in the past. And added, “She may have threatened her sister, but I don’t think that constitutes Homeland Security triggers.” I think Daisy should paint the portrait of this little terrorist.

16 thoughts on “Tuna Princess

  1. And Hitler was an abused child and wanted to be an artist. Life turned out differently for him and millions of others.

  2. What exactly is so interesting about finding individuality, and a lack of total evil, in aggressors? Ever see a jail-house movie? This is normal. What exactly is being tilted at here–a straw man? We should not shoot down the next Kasab b/c we know if we were to meet him in prison in 20 years he wouldn’t be a complete demon? That is an utter non-sequitur. It is, I can only fear, the council of a self-hater, who wants his culture destroyed. I don’t think you love the aggressor, I think you hate yourself. We need to shoot down the Kasabs even though they have some specks of humanity in them, because they are seeking to annihilate us. Am much as a I deplore the anti-intellectualism and casual racism of the Hong-Kongers, at least they can identify and defend themselves against mortal enemies. And so, survive.

  3. …And after you have killed Kasab, after you have bombed _____stan back into the Stone Age, and celebrated the pure annihilation of the enemy–what will you do then? When there is nothing human left outside you–or outside what constitutes for you on the larger stage the idea of a social self–do you think you will find anything other than the inhuman inside you? Your monstrous revolution will not hesitate to devour its own children. Nothing will outlast the devastation that you seek. The survival you speak of is only an invitation that we return to the age of insects.

  4. Amitava, any idea why she called it “Rasgulla”. Rasgulla is good name for a cat–light and fluffy, but an art show?

  5. I didn’t ask but I thought that the name was there because of the central idea of the rasas. So, there was the central idea, but there was also the idea of treating it light-heartedly. I’m guessing here.

  6. Okay, I am confused by this post. Is it still considered revolutionary to show that people who engage in acts of terrorism (however defined) are people? As an aside, personally I’d be reporting Alessa to PETA, let alone DHS. If it is still shocking, then kudos to the artist for making or reaffirming the point. I’m not sure what that has to do with a cock-up by the US govt. vis a vis the no-fly list, but I’m sure someone can point out the valid linkage. However, I would argue that the humanity of the individual engaging in the act/crime/blow against tyranny is irrelevant. As far as i am aware, the law in the US tries solely to modify the behaviour of humans. It focuses on particular acts and, where applicable, the intention behind the acts (manslaugher vs. 1st degree murder). Whether or not the person committing the act likes/hates mangoes, helping little old ladies across the street or the songs of Joy Division is of minimal interest to the law. Yes, people who commit acts of terrorism have traits that their targets/opponents/enemies/prosecutors may consider sympathetic. Does that mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions? Isn’t that the equivalent of saying the frat-boy who participated in a gang-bang rape is otherwise a good kid who is really nice to his girlfriend and involved in puppy rescue and so shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of his actions? Perhaps I am misunderstanding the intent of this post, but I truly am confused.

    Or is the point that states shouldn’t take action against perceived enemies, because enemies are people too (as seems to be suggested by at least one of the comments)? If so, then I must categorically disagree, for essentially the same reason stated above. If you are committing a crime or an act of aggression against a state, then the state has a right to defend itself or obtain redress for the injury. Whether it chooses to engage in ahimsa is its prerogative. If the state chooses to take a more retaliatory approach to protect its existence, why is that inappropriate, especially if the original act against it involved violence? Is the contention that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind? Isn’t it arguable that if everyone is blind, then everyone is at least on equal footing as opposed to having one side bear the brunt of aggression? I can certainly see the need for exploring other options if appropriate, but I don’t understand why aggression in response to a violent attack should be off-limits (perhaps I should stop watching the Untouchables). I agree that it helps people push the button more easily if they see their targets/opponents as inhuman, but it certainly doesn’t stop someone who recognizes that the target is human from considering all circumstances and still pushing the button (whether the button is a detonator on a car bomb or done from the cockpit of the Enola Gay).

    Just to be clear, I am not denigrating the artist for preparing the exhibition to express her artistic drive and viewpoint (and I do like the mood evoked by the painting). I am just truly surprised that the depiction of “ordinary terrorists” as being banally human is somehow considered revolutionary to all but the most die-hard ideologues or should somehow dissuade others from holding them accountable (however defined) for their actions, or that acknowledgement of the humanity must somehow lead to a different response to acts of terrorism.

  7. I’d heard of rasas before but the only thing I think of is Ras Lila and the story of Krishna

    Here are the nine rasas, or “pure emotion” which I thought was pretty interesting because emotion is usually anything but.

    Love (Shrinagara) Joy (Hasya) Wonder (Adbhuta) Peace (Shanta) Anger (Raudra) Courage (Veera) Sadness (Karuna) Fear (Bhayanaka) Disgust (Vibhatsa)

    There’s a couple interesting ones in there. Like, I never really of “peace” or “courage” as an emotion.

    Amitava - Just an aside, because I don’t want to go too far off topic. There have been plenty of instances of violence that have not lead to further violence. Consider World War II or the war on terrorism. Fighting monsters does not automatically damn us to become like them. Maybe you weren’t setting up the dichotomy of fight vs. non-violence (but it seems like it) but the real challenge here is to fight with judicial constraint.

  8. or the war on terrorism. Fighting monsters does not automatically damn us to become like them.

    war on terrorism is a good example of how fungible the line of judicial constraint or legality can be and the kinds of acts which the “civilized” will resort to when they dehumanize the other. and use apocalyptic rhetoric to excuse various acts.

  9. A lot of people who commit crimes have “nice” things about them. But they committed a crime and are now where they belong in prison. They are made to take responsibility for their crimes. Taking responsibility for what you have done is necessary for both the individual who committed the crime and to his victims of his crime and to society. It is up to them to turn their life around, realize how they have screwed up their lives and have harmed others. It is part of being an adult. Being responsible for one’s actions and living with the consequences of one’s actions.

  10. *Mohamed Mahmood Alessa was arrested with his friend (and co-conspirator) on the way to join a militant group in Somalia. His mother has said that he wanted to take his cat, Tuna Princess, with him, but she did not allow it and they argued.

    I don’t find this to be redeeming. Thank God this cat had his mother to protect her! This to me shows another serious flaw in this guy. A real animal lover would want to make sure their pets are safe and well taken care of if they are not able. He wasn’t going to Disneyland, he was going to SOMALIA to join a terrorist group. That is a violent life he chose. He was selfish, thinking of his own wants. He wanted his cat to be with him in his chosen violent life path because it pleased him, not that it was best for his cat. That isn’t love shown to this cat. That is about what the cat can do for him. This is not good for the cat. He showed poor judgment in this and recklessness and selfishness. No animal shelter who cares for the well being of the animals that they hope to place in a stable home would accept this guy as a someone whom they would allow to adopt their animals.

    So instead of showing him with Tuna Princess on his bed, the artist should have shown him in Somalia with the terrorists with his cat. That is the real care and concern he feels for the cat. His mother should have been alone on the bed with the cat instead.

  11. I get it, its the fault of everyone except terrorist jehadis, proponents of jehadi ideology, apologists for jehadist hatred and dogma, and spreaders of bigotry and Islamic extremism.

    Yeah, we get it, enough already. Its our fault.

  12. Mullah Omar and bin Laden have become metaphors now. Almost ceasing to exist as people. Neon signs of war, of terror, of resistance, of dogma — depending on which camp you belong to. Personally, I think Rockwell’s work would be more interesting if she decided to forgo the bigwigs of “terror” altogether, instead concentrating specifically on the “ordinary” terrorist (a grim turn of phrase), footsoldiers destined to be forgotten footnotes. Portraits of men and women with no known back stories acting like cheat sheets; who stare out, like people do, when the camera takes a picture. And at that point we decide, whether to empathize, to choose to be uninterested, to be venomous, or something else altogether.

    There have been other approaches to humanize the complexities of violence. In 2005, a group of photographers landed in conflict-ridden Israel and Palestine and put up giant posters, close-ups, of Palestinians and Israelis, of all shades and expressions, side by side. What the posters didn’t do was identify the Palestinian and the Israeli; one had to guess: http://face2faceproject.com/. The point was made.

    I think the ordinariness Rockwell strives for, to make better sense or no sense of the mayhem of terrorists, is better captured in Emmanuel Guibert’s and Didier Lefevre’s graphic work, “The Photographer.” Guibert’s etchings and Lefevre’s photographs don’t pretend to understand the complexities of a dirty war or its participants, but to be fair, this was before the War on Terror rhetoric. And it is a different kind of war. Yet in the drawings and the landscape, war’s dominance, its craziness, is evident. As a reader, you are drawn in, and you stay there, in that hole. When you come out, you don’t know what to do.

    I reacted similarly to “Restrepo,” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s documentary about the Battle Company’s turbulent 14-month deployment in an outpost in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. The film makers wanted to make a film about the daily perils of an ordinary American soldier. In the backdrop are ordinary Afghans; the film, Hetherington confessed at the Q & A, wasn’t about them. Yet one of the film’s strongest scenes involve this Afghan family who are ushered out of their home, victims of a bombing by military aircraft. They, children among them, troop out terrified. There has been collateral damage; an infant is covered in shrapnel. And with a straight face, albeit apologetic, a military commander tells the villagers such mistakes may reoccur if they continue to shelter the Taliban. At that point, for me, the bad guys and the good guys sat in a pool of gray.

  13. I get it, its the fault of everyone except terrorist jehadis, proponents of jehadi ideology, apologists for jehadist hatred and dogma, and spreaders of bigotry and Islamic extremism.

    well, since that wasn’t remotely what was said by the OP, maybe you should look inside yourself as to why you are so eager to assign blame.

  14. That is a better question aimed at the country you refused to identify in your post. Unlike its neighborhood, India isnt harvesting its male youth to become suicide bombers and political pawns so that it can retain some degree of political clout in the sub continent. India is doing fine with the terrorism and it will do even better once it stamps it out.

  15. I’m intrigued by Rockwell/Lapata’s style and hope to make it to a show one day. Glad to see more of her work on Sepia.