News Briefs featuring Steve Mumford
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STEVE MUMFORD's wartime art lauded by the Portland Press Herald
Updated June 6, 2011
Steve Mumford, a painter who splits his time between New York and Maine, has made eight trips to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. With quick ink drawings, he captures the daily lives of the people who live in the war zones and the American Marines on duty.
His inspiration for the project is Winslow Homer, the famous American landscape painter who began his career making illustrations from the front lines of the Civil War for Harper's Weekly.
All these years later, Mumford is doing much the same, though for different reasons. Homer did it out of necessity, and he was one among hundreds of illustrators on or near the front lines. They observed the action and illustrated scenes to give readers perspective.
In our time, technology has rendered front-line illustrators obsolete. Digital photography not only allows us to capture action precisely, but to transmit images at near-instant speed so we share context for the war stories as they unfold.
Mumford is showing a collection of his war-zone drawings this summer at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. The exhibition, "Embedded," is part of the Maine Drawing Project, a statewide effort among museums and galleries to call attention to the wealth of drawings in Maine collections and to the great tradition of drawing in the state.
Mumford turns back the clock some 200 years on a subject that is now digitized. "It's such an elemental act," he said. "You can get a powerful and strong connection looking at a drawing, and the technology is so primitive."
His illustrations show women doing laundry, doctors performing amputations and soldiers in the mess hall. They flesh out the war stories that we read about in the papers and hear on the news. He was less interested in the front-line action and more concerned about recording the lives of residents and soldiers in the lull between the fighting.
"I saw these drawings as something between art and reporting," said Mumford. "I didn't have enough money to hire translators and minders, so I decided to just wander and, in a random way, draw whatever I saw and whatever happened. It seemed like a better strategy rather than seeking out violence, per se."
Mumford, 50, spends his summers in Maine. He and his wife, artist Inka Essenhigh, have a place in Tenants Harbor. He's the nephew of Maine painter Charles DuBack.
CMCA curator Suzette McAvoy discovered Mumford's work during a studio visit with Essenhigh at their summer home.
"He had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and he showed me a stack of these fantastic pen-and-ink drawings that he had done of soldiers on patrol on the streets and on the sidewalks of the cities," McAvoy said. "I thought, 'This is our drawing show.' "
As much as she liked Mumford's drawings, McAvoy also appreciated his story: A working contemporary artist inspired by one of the greatest artists in American art history, both with deep Maine roots, doing similar work.
Mumford made his first trip to Iraq in 2003. He bought a ticket to Kuwait City, then hitched a ride with French journalists who had a spare seat. He arrived in Iraq on the now-historic day that celebrants toppled the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad.
Mumford's project unfolded largely by circumstance. He did not have a specific plan, other than to record what he saw. He spent about a month in Iraq on that first trip, and returned five more times. His last trip there was in 2008. He's also been twice to Afghanistan, including earlier this year.
The drawings are finished pieces, and stand on their own. Some also serve as studies for larger oil paintings -- painting is Mumford's primary focus as an artist.
His war works have received notice nationally and in Canada. The Canadian press Drawn and Quarterly published a collection of his drawings. Harper's Magazine also picked up on his project, and published several of his pieces. In August, Harper's will feature Mumford's work from Afghanistan; the magazine has also sent him to Louisiana to illustrate the Gulf oil spill.
The Pritzker Military Library in Chicago gave Mumford an exhibition in 2007, and in February 2010, he had a solo show at Postmasters Gallery in New York.
Mumford admits a long fascination with war-time art, and it started with Homer. Mumford grew up in Boston, and became familiar with Homer as a young boy. Homer infused his cultural background, and informed his sensibilities as an artist. He's always appreciated Homer's lyrical style, as well as his flair for dramatic storytelling.
Mumford attended the Boston Museum School in the 1980s, where this kind of representational work was considered regressive, if not hopeless uncool.
"It took me a long time to realize what's cool is what you need to do," he said. "I wasted a lot of time thinking I had to be an abstract expressionist when all I really wanted to do was tell stories."
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STEVE MUMFORD reports from Afghanistan for artnet Magazine
Updated September 9, 2010
by Steve Mumford
A bomb goes off outside the base as a squad of Marines is getting the briefing for a patrol. It seems ominous, calling us out to play.
The mission is to return to an area where Lima Co 3/6 had been hit in the past, and look for buried bombs.
Leaving the wire, we pass a bunch of Afghan Army soldiers, lolling by the entrance. Their stares are inscrutable, mirthless. We walk along a hard-packed dirt road following a large canal. The road is empty, until we come across the reassuring sight of some boys jumping in the water -- a perfect activity for such a sweltering morning, without a breeze.
I’m trying to keep 100 feet back from the soldier in front of me ("dispersal, dispersal, dispersal" is the safety rule here for foot or vehicle patrols). After an hour we get to the "rat lane," as the Marines call the smaller footpaths where IEDs have been buried in the past. The team leader hollers at the Afghan soldiers to continue up the road while an explosives team searches the smaller path. The Afghanis balk, grinning sheepishly and hanging back. After some haranguing the American shrugs and calls up some of his Marines to patrol the road.
The Marines simply call the Afghan soldiers "ANA" (Afghan National Army), as in, "Hey ANA, get off your ass and get up here!"
Sometimes the ANAs’ behavior on patrols reminds me of a dog who really doesn’t want to go for a walk in the rain, and has to be continuously cajoled and threatened.
A couple of hours later the three-man Explosives and Ordinance Disposal team discovers a black trip wire threading its deadly way through the underbrush.
The search intensifies and then Marine Lance Corporal David Fields locates a second cord, this one colored tan, perfectly matching the tall dry grass. As the EOD team follows the strings they come upon a small explosive, then nearby a big homemade bomb, 50 lbs of explosives and old spark plugs and bolts stuffed into a large, battered cooking-oil tin. The team leader thinks that the bomb had just been placed; the smaller explosive would have drawn in Marines to investigate, then someone would have triggered the large IED.
As we wait for the EOD team to blow up the bomb, we hear the sounds of an intense firefight not far off: a sniper team fighting off an ambush, I learn later.
That night back at Combat Outpost (COP) Coutu our sleep is punctuated by outgoing mortar rounds, launched to support Marines in combat at a nearby patrol base.
I share a ride to Camp Yazzie with the sniper team leader who’d been ambushed the day before. He estimated that the attack involved seven or eight Taliban fighters who followed his team and attacked from multiple directions. He called in mortar strikes twice to clear out the enemy positions, thus keeping his men from being pinned down. After three hours the attack finally faded at dusk when the Taliban fighters knew they’d be at a disadvantage.
No Americans were killed.
The gunner in the heavily-armored vehicle I’m traveling in merrily informs me that there’s a misfired shoulder-launch rocket by my feet, so "Don’t let it bang around back there, it’ll take us all out!" It’s the size of a small tree trunk -- yet another good reason not to hit an IED.
From Camp Yazzie, I join a morning patrol lead by Lance Corporal Paul Horsler, Lance Corporal Monte Buchanan walking point, with Capt. Daniel "K-nuts" Knudsen along for the ride, to call in artillery support if needed.
Matthew, a congenial Englishman from the Financial Times, is along as well: he tells me he normally doesn’t "chase the bang-bang," but was desperate to escape the boredom of Camp Hanson, from where he’d been filing stories over the last week.
We walk south of the base along a large canal in sweltering heat and humidity. Right away two men on a motorcycle come toward us and are quickly stopped and searched by the Afghan soldiers. As they pass by me one smiles broadly but I can’t shake the immediate impression that the smile is false, that they’re scoping us out, my certainty fed by fear.
Our goal is to walk to a small village and interview some people who have been receptive to chatting with the Marines in the past. It’s a pretty but tough hike to the village, as the heat ratchets up, past mud-walled compounds and fields green with crops.
I notice that the Afghan soldiers with us seem more professional than those on the patrols from Camp Coutu. Their bearing is serious and they don’t seem to be waiting for the Marines to tell them what to do.
Arriving at the village, we knock on several gates and the Marines sit down to ask the men some standard questions about security, Taliban presence and other war-zone small talk. An Afghan officer translates. These interviews remind me of 1st ID’s "knock & talk" missions in Mosul, Iraq, back in 2008, in which the Americans seemed tired, impatient and distracted, missing the nuances from the translator’s halting efforts. To glean anything useful from such conversations would require subtler and more attentive minds. I sense that the point of these missions is mostly a show of presence.
A couple of genial but tough-looking middle aged men in turbans drop by to chat. Perhaps they’ve cleared this visit with the Taliban, or perhaps they are Taliban.
As the talk goes on and the heat increases I’m trying to draw but the sweat is pouring down my face, getting in my eyes and wetting the paper. I don’t have a cloth to wipe my face with. Finally in desperation I take off my helmet and flack and find a little concentration with which to continue. Matthew comments later that amidst the tension of the long combat patrol he was amused to hear the pedestrian grinding of my pencil sharpener.
Resuming the patrol, we’re passing a farm compound outside the village. Another dirt road is coming up which intersects the one we’re on. Suddenly a rifle fires nearby. Matthew and a Marine just in front of me drop to the road; I’m crouching, waiting for a response, the din of combat.
"Warning shot -- the ANA fired a warning shot!" someone calls out.
"Why didn’t they warn me about the warning shot?" a Marine jokes.
Ahead a white van filled with men has stopped on the approaching intersection. The men are shouting at one of the ANA. Apparently the van sped up when it approached the patrol. There’s no harm done and we move on, swimming in the heat.
Thirty minutes later the patrol stops, and I hear over the radio that Lance Corporal Horsler and the ANA have discovered disturbed dirt on the road up ahead, sometimes an indication of a recently buried bomb. Horsler goes in close to investigate.
At the rear of the patrol, two Marines position themselves at a rat lane intersection. They had just encountered a child who dashed away so fast he left his sandals on the path. They suspect he’s alerting someone, perhaps a triggerman for a bomb.
Horsler, over the radio, doesn’t think it’s a bomb and wants to press ahead on the main path, but the other two chide him, insisting that it’s an unnecessary risk, and anyway the smaller path is a shorter route back to Yazzie.
Horsler walks by the upturned dirt, arguing for several minutes, but finally relents.
A few minutes later a man in a white dishdasha appears 75 yards ahead, walking in front of us. Buchanan hollers at him to stop, but he ignores us and disappears into the foliage.
Is there any meaning in these odd encounters?
We continue our hot walk back to base.
The afternoon patrol, which I skip, gets hit with an ambush.
The next day I join a convoy on a long mission to resupply two smaller bases, Moose and Camel. Along the way, we stop to provide security for a foot patrol passing by a new yellow schoolhouse the Marines have been building. We also provide over-watch for a convoy evacuating a Marine casualty from a roadside bomb that morning.
A sandstorm picks up, darkening the sky and buffeting the trees and bushes. At Camel I get out to draw the entrance gate, a Marine in a small tower atop a stack of Hesco barriers. He’s got a headscarf wrapped tightly around his face and helmet. The wind is so intense it’s rocking me back and forth, dust at times obscuring the edge of the dunes behind the barriers.
The call goes out that we’re leaving. I hastily hold up the drawing to show the guy in the tower.
He raises his arms and shoulders in a questioning gesture. Is he saying, What the fuck are you doing out here? Or maybe just, Why?
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STEVE MUMFORD interviewed by Newsarama
Updated October 25, 2007
STEVE MUMFORD ON BAGHDAD JOURNAL
by Michael C Lorah
Artist Steve Mumford first visited Iraq in April, 2003, right after the invasion. He traveled around the country and spent some time embedded with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry from Fort Stewart, Georgia. He made four return trips, including a nearly-five-month excursion from June through October of 2004, and has spent nearly a year of his life there. Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq, which was released in 2005, is his attempt to capture what he found in the cradle of humanity.
I asked him about the book’s creation, the impossible politics of the war, and why he keeps returning to one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Newsarama: Steve, your book was published by comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, but you’re not a comic artist. What is the format of Baghdad Journal?
Steve Mumford: For lack of a better word, I guess that I’d call it an art book, because the emphasis is on the drawings and watercolors. It’s split up into sections: when I was in Iraq, I was sending stories via satellite to an art website called artnet.com, so when I was embedded with a particular unit for a month or whatever, I’d sum up my experiences in a short essay and send it along with jpegs of drawings of what I’d experienced. The book is divided into chapters. Each one has a relatively short essay about what was happening and then a portfolio of full-page, full-color drawings.
NRAMA: How did you work on each illustration? Were they created on-site, or sketched out and completed later?
SM: Yeah, they were created on site, although many of them I had to finish later. A lot of times in Iraq, if I was on patrol with American soldiers, if they stopped somewhere, I’d start drawing, but they might be moving kind of fast. In a case like that, I’d snap some photographs and use them as a reference to finish the drawing, or to add color later. I’d say about half the works in the book were done completely on the spot, and the others – virtually all of them were at least started on the spot, with a couple exceptions. For example, night patrols, things like that, where you just wouldn’t be able to draw.
NRAMA: (laughs) Yeah, I imagine the problem. What moved you to travel to Baghdad in the first place? What was your idea when you went there?
SM: My idea was to see what it is like in a war zone. I’ve been curious about war for a long time, so it’s been in the back of my mind. I was a kid during Vietnam, and in my childhood, my mom took me to anti-war protests and stuff like that. I remember seeing pictures of the My Lai Massacre in Life magazine, and I was always curious – both terrified and curious – about that. Actually, back around 2001, I started a series of oil paintings in my studio based around the Vietnam War. These were things that were mostly out of my head, but also based on first-person experiences that I’d read.
And so when it was clear that this war (Iraq) was going to happen, it occurred to me that I could go as an artist and record my own direct impressions of it. It seemed like an amazing opportunity. Also, one of my artistic heroes is a painter named Winslow Homer, and he was sent by Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War as a combat artist. So I’ve been aware of that occupation, even though it’s fallen into disuse.
NRAMA: When you first arrived in Baghdad, was this book something you were considering? What was your initial goal in Iraq?
SM: No, the book wasn’t on my mind. The book came about because Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly – someone I guess turned him on to the stories I was sending to artnet.com, so he emailed me – I was actually in Iraq – and proposed the book. Which I thought was fantastic.
But what was on my mind was making the sketches as vivid as I could while I was there, and then making oil paintings about the Iraq War back in the studio.
NRAMA: You were able to meet and work with many Iraqi artists while in Baghdad. What were those experiences like, and did you collaborate with them on any paintings (in this book or otherwise)?
SM: No, I didn’t collaborate with them on anything in the book. In some of the essays, I describe hanging out with them and going to buy art supplies in Baghdad, and stuff like that. The closest I came to collaboration was that we would fool around in the studio sometimes. Sometimes artists will get together, just take a big piece of paper and start drawing on it together – like turn it upside down and continue drawing on each other’s work. We did stuff like that together, but nothing of any particular artistic consequence. We were having fun.
NRAMA: Drawn & Quarterly describes Baghdad Journal “non-political.” It seems nearly impossible that anything related to this war could be thus described, but how do you divorce the events in the book from the polarized reactions people are likely to have?
MS: Well, you know, I will refer to it as non-political in as much as I don’t consider it to be either anti-war or pro-war, or anti-Iraq War or pro-Iraq War. I think somebody who is looking to the work as a condemnation of war in general is going to be disappointed. And probably somebody looking for pro-war propaganda wouldn’t find exactly what they wanted either. It just doesn’t smack of either side, because that’s not what motivated me to go in the first place.
Even though I thought the war was a mistake and I protested it, that was not in any way an issue as to why I went. I just wanted to see what it was like, and I had no idea what to expect. I haven’t had anybody close to me in the American military, and I didn’t know what the Iraqis would feel about it. I think I pretty much went there with an open mind, and the idea that I wanted to record what life was like, at least the life that I encountered.
I would say it is non-political. I think the work got a lot of flak from certain artistic circles for not being anti-war. And I had a fair number of critics take me to town for not making “paintings like…” and they sort of describe what they thought a good painting should have- You know, an Iraqi woman wringing her hands at the sky, et cetera, et cetera. Whatever it is that you think war is made up of. And my only response to that is, that’s not what I saw. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but it’s not what I happened to come across. Those are my limitations.
NRAMA: Your focus is more on the day-to-day lifestyles of both Iraqis and American G.I.s that you met there?
SM: The Iraqis that I got to know are probably the Iraqis that I could most relate to: Iraqi artists, who tended to be pretty educated and have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of the West. So I make no claims of them being representative of Iraq. Nonetheless, they were people that I could get close to and hang out with, and that I liked. So I thought it was worthwhile describing what their day-to-day life is like.
As far as the soldiers go, I was trying to find a place that seemed interesting. Some places were in the Sunni triangle, or in Baghdad. In some cases, I’d just rely on the U.S. military, where they could find an embedment slot for me. And then my only criterion was that I’d go out on patrol with the soldiers and see what they saw. It might be a very friendly neighborhood where nothing happened, or it might be a hostile neighborhood where they got attacked every time they left the base. I felt that the cumulative effect of these different stories creates a mosaic portrait of what life is like there.
NRAMA: Given some of those hostile and dangerous circumstances, was it difficult for you to maintain your focus on the daily routines that you found? How did you prevent the shadow of the war from just overwhelming everything else?
SM: Well, I think it just tends not to. That’s just how a person is constructed genetically. I think that if there’s not a bomb directly going off, or bullets being fired, it’s human nature to fall back on some kind of dignified routine. If there wasn’t a bomb going off, the Iraqis were behaving perfectly normally, so you could look at the scene and say that it doesn’t look like a war zone at all. And usually it didn’t feel like one. But it only takes one sniper or one bomb to transform the situation. More times that not, that didn’t happen; it’s amazing, on the whole, given how long I was there how little actual fighting or violence I saw, which was due to a lot of factors.
But it was very easy, earlier on in the war, to just walk around Baghdad and draw people, or out on patrol to draw whatever the soldiers were doing. Also, when you’re drawing, you’re just concentrating on what’s in front of you. You’re using your right brain, the non-intellectual side of your mind, you’re in the middle of a process and not thinking very much.
NRAMA: The book came out in 2005, and in the last two years, how have people received it? How’s the reaction been?
SM: I usually get a pretty good reaction. I did a little traveling to promote the book, and I’ve given some talks in university-type settings, and I always get one or two people who are really strongly against the war and see me as somehow collaborating with George Bush because I’m not condemning the war. So I’ve come to expect that, and I feel I can defend myself, but I’m not going to convince them. But most people, I think, are moved by the book, just because it’s a different take, in the sense that it’s drawings and not photographs. I think that with photographs, we’re so accustomed to seeing them that we don’t look at them that closely. There’s something about the care, when you know that somebody has had to draw each of these things depicted, and you sense their presence there when they were drawing it, that brings the reality of the place to people in a totally different way.
NRAMA: You’ve been back to Baghdad since the book came out.
NRAMA: Are you still working with artnet.com?
SM: Yeah, I actually just posted a new story with them. I was embedded at the US Army hospital, the Baghdad ER, my last trip, and they’ve published that story.
NRAMA: Any expectation of a follow-up book to Baghdad Journal?
SM: I don’t know. The other thing I’ve been doing in the interim is drawing at the military hospitals here in the U.S., at Brooke Army Medical Center and at Walter Reed. And I got some really great drawings out of both places, but my wife thinks they may be a little too depressing for anybody to consider buying, so we’ll see.
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D + Q spotlighted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Updated March 26, 2007
By Cliff Froehlich
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
Smaller than Fantagraphics but just as ambitious in its aesthetic goals, the Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly (www.drawnandquarterly.com) publishes some of graphic lit's finest artists, including Chester Brown, Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes and St. Louis' Kevin Huizenga.
Through the various incarnations of its titular anthology, "Drawn and Quarterly," the company also has helped introduce English-speaking audiences to an impressive array of significant international artists, a mission it continues to fulfill with books by such talents as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tove Jansson, and the team of Phillipe Dupuy and Charles Berberian.
Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie's "Aya" (112 pages, $19.95) is D&Q's latest cross-cultural gift, a charming and unexpectedly cheery coming-of-age story set in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s. Refreshing as it is to read a tale of Africa that doesn't deal in genocide, famine or general strife, "Aya" sometimes veers dangerously close to the life lessons of young-adult lit, with the eponymous good-girl heroine hectoring her boy-crazy friends Adjoua and Bintou about their scandalous ways.
But if the general outlines of the story are familiar, the specifics are delightfully exotic, with Abouet vividly sketching the environs and rituals of Abidjan during its regrettably brief time as the "Paris of West Africa." She's considerably aided by Oubrerie's loose, energetic and vibrantly colored art.
In addition to its more traditional graphic-lit offerings, Drawn and Quarterly dabbles in what might be termed art books with comics connections. Some are quite elaborate, such as artist Steve Mumford's "Baghdad Journal," a hardcover compendium of drawings and watercolors made in Iraq during the war.
But the company also publishes a line of small paperbacks called Petites Livres. The latest is cartoonist Charles Burns' "One Eye" (144 pages, $14.95), a collection of digital photographs in which the artist juxtaposes two pictures to alternately ironic, disquieting and amusing effect. Photos of toys, pets, body parts, food, household objects, landscapes and architectural details play off one another in fascinating and often disturbing ways, eliciting the same creeping unease as Burns' eerily perfect drawing style.
Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, presenter of the St. Louis International Film Festival.
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STEVE MUMFORD exhibition in Atlanta
Updated January 26, 2007
Arts: Visual Arts
The unobserved war
Steve Mumford paints into the zone
BY FELICIA FEASTER
Baghdad and Beyond: Drawings by Steve Mumford
Through Feb. 28.
Tues, Wed, Sat, 10 am - 5 pm
Thurs-Fri, 10 am - 9:30 pm
Sun, noon - 5 pm
Atlanta College of Art Gallery of the Savannah College of Art and Design
1280 Peachtree St.
If Vietnam was the photojournalist's war, then Iraq is the videographer's. Soldiers carry cameras and the new dominance of reality TV has given the public an insatiable thirst for documentary reality. We are bombarded with images on the nightly news of the conflict.
But the question worth asking is whether the escalation in imagery seen of the Iraq war has better informed us about what is really going on, or merely desensitized us? Perhaps more imagery simply enhances a sense of confusion and disorientation, blinding us in the fog of war.
Forty-six-year-old New York City artist Steve Mumford's artwork defies that deluge of the quick scroll, the sound bite, the nightly news video maelstrom. Mumford traveled on four occasions to Iraq beginning in April 2003, spending a total of 11 months, off and on, as an embedded artist in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. He posted some of his dispatches on the online art journal artnet and created art based on his experiences there, a selection of which will appear locally at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
If Mumford has an agenda, which he is reluctant to present as such, it is to step back and record the diurnal, subjective and sensory elements of war from within the frantic blitzkrieg of our usual hyped-up, superficial reportage.
There is an eerie calm at the heart of Mumford's watercolors and ink drawings, and his large-scale paintings. Unlike movie images of war, full of cataclysm and movement, there is only waiting and a pregnant hesitation. The ellipses between battle rather than the grand cataclysms are Mumford's contribution to what we think we know about war.
"Drawing is a much slower process, so what I was interested in was capturing those slower moments," Mumford says. "Ninety percent of the time in Iraq the soldiers are just standing around."
In Mumford's images, soldiers wait in the cool shade of a building, guns at the ready for some unseen figure to pass down the sunny street.
Children scramble for candy at the perimeter of an American Humvee. Daily life unfolds at Iraqi cafes and markets.
But there are more pointed images, too, of a memorial for a fallen American soldier and another of hooded "Suspects" captured by the American military.
Although still founded on stasis and calm, it is in a later body of work that Mumford's documentation becomes laced with dramatic profundity.
After leaving Iraq in October 2004, Mumford says "I wanted to maintain contact with the Iraq war although I wasn't going back."
And so he began drawing soldiers recovering from their injuries at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
Like his war-zone work, its meaning ultimately depending upon the viewer's perspective, his images of war-maimed soldiers feel like Rorschach tests.
Depending upon your sensibility, the images of men with paralyzed or missing limbs waiting patiently on exercise mats or staring off into space are haunting or affirmative. An illustration of the horrors of war. Or proof that any trial can be overcome.
To Mumford, the images show the resilience and endurance of the injured soldiers, such as the one, pausing on an exercise bike, who has wrapped an American flag bandana around one of his stumps.
"I wanted to capture ... that some part of their camaraderie and their spirit hadn't dimmed in spite of their wounds. I make my stuff and put it out there and then it, in a way, has a life of its own," Mumford says of work that has incensed and inspired critics on both sides of the political spectrum. "I think that's part of the ambivalence and ambiguity of war. It attracts us as human beings, and especially as men and yet it can have devastating and lifelong consequences."
Steve Mumford will be in attendance at an opening reception at the gallery on Thurs., Jan. 18, 6-8 p.m.
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Steve Mumford in the Boston Globe
Updated November 29, 2006
The tug of war
A combat illustrator captures the view from the ground in Iraq
By Ken Johnson, Globe Staff | October 27, 2006
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Steve Mumford was just another painter working his way up the food chain of the New York art world. A graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and a Boston native, he'd gotten into a good gallery and his neo-surrealistic paintings were receiving respectful reviews.
Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the US invasion of Iraq, and Mumford came to an unusual, life- and career-altering decision. He decided to go to Iraq: not as a soldier but as an old-fashioned combat illustrator.
With press credentials provided by the online artnet Magazine, Mumford made four trips to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and he created hundreds of ink and watercolor drawings documenting many different experiences of the war. He drew gun battles, crowded street scenes, landscapes, portraits of local citizens, prisoners behind bars, and images of US troops playing games and sleeping. Now 41 of those drawings, plus eight from a recent series about injured troops in a rehabilitation center, are on view in "Baghdad and Beyond: Drawings by Steve Mumford," a gripping and thought-provoking exhibition at the Tufts University Art Gallery.
Mumford's drawings are made with a loose, deft touch, but they are not so technically polished as to divert attention from his subject matter. A big part of what makes them absorbing to study is his determination to get down on paper as clearly and thoroughly as he can just what he is seeing. Each has a brief explanatory caption written by the artist. Some depict moments in the heat of battle. The patrol crouched in a shadowy passageway that opens onto a brightly lit area beyond are "getting ready to bound forward to a sniper's location, minutes after the death of Specialist Josiah Vandertulip." Many show more peaceful moments, like the one of troops hitting golf balls into the Tigris from the roof of one of Saddam's palaces at sundown.
The drawings of troops in rehab are not sentimental, but they are heartbreaking in their matter-of-factness. "Staff Sergeant John Jones, 1/7 Marines, Charlie Company, lost both legs below the knee," reads the caption for the picture of a man riding a stationary bike with an American flag-patterned piece of fabric wrapped around one of his prosthetic legs.
Mumford's drawings don't tell you how he feels politically about the war. Like a newspaper reporter, he is just trying to convey what it is like to be on the ground in the midst of a conflict in a distant country. He also wrote a blog for artnet, and his drawings and writings are gathered into a book, "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq, " published by Drawn + Quarterly (2005).
Some of the drawings are so complicated and so profusely detailed you may wonder if Mumford used photographs as visual aids. More substantively, you may find yourself thinking about the differences between drawing and photography. That photography can capture and represent things that a human draftsman can't is obvious. Do Mumford's drawings do something that a camera can't?
One difference is that a camera is not selective. It just mechanically records what is in front of it, and it often reveals things that the photographer did not at first realize were there. In a drawing, you know that the artist put in every detail on purpose. You are aware that a real live person was on the scene trying to describe and depict what he saw. The drawing may lack photographic verisimilitude, but it can have a kind of autographic conviction that photographs don't.
What drawing cannot be is objective, which raises the question: Does drawing have any practical value in a world where visual documentation is taken care of mainly by machines? In a courtroom, where cameras are not allowed, it does, but otherwise it seems that drawing by hand for utilitarian purposes has become an endangered craft.
It is illuminating, then, to consider the work of GÃ¼ nther Selichar, an Austrian artist whose large-scale photographic works are on view in "Media Machines," a separate exhibition also at Tufts.
Selichar is preoccupied by how much of reality these days is mediated by machines and by electronic communication networks. He does not scrutinize, critique, or manipulate the content of contemporary media. He focuses, rather, on the machines that deliver our information and entertainment. The most prominent works in this exhibition are large, glossy photographs of computer and television screens that are blank because they are off or in stand by or test modes.
Laminated to rigid panels and composed so the images of the screens exactly fit the outer rectangles of the photographs, these works are like Minimalist paintings. A set of three screens, one with all its pixels red, one all blue, and one all green, is titled "Who's Afraid of Blue, Red, and Green?" -- a play on "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?" the famous proto-Minimalist, three-color triptych by Barnett Newman .
Selichar's larger purpose is to invite meditation on that paradoxical, distinctively modern kind of experience in which we regularly travel to different virtual worlds while remaining physically immobile and staring through the thin, transparent window of an electronic machine. We are prompted to think about a split between our physical experience and our increasingly virtual mental experience -- a widening gulf between mind and body.
Selichar has also orchestrated a public art "intervention": He has had huge tarps printed with digital-style letters spelling "Embedded" attached to either side of a tractor-trailer truck, and he has directed the truck to be driven around Boston on certain days, including Sept. 19, primary day, and Nov. 7, election day.
The meaning of this action is unclear. People who notice the truck might guess it to be a protest against the Iraq war or an advertisement for a new television show. For gallery visitors, it obliquely resonates with the art of Mumford, who was in fact an embedded journalist in Iraq.
The ideas about the mediated experience in Selichar's techno-chic work are not new, but the proximity to Mumford's drawings heightens their implicit critique of our electronically activated culture. Can the transformation of physical reality into machine-processed virtual reality be resisted? Should it be? Mumford's art argues with persuasive moral urgency that it can and it must.
Ken Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Steve Mumford in the Boston Phoenix
Updated October 27, 2006
Fight the power
Artists protest war, scrutinize surveillance, explore usefulness, and embrace couture
By: RANDI HOPKINS
9/13/2006 5:57:10 PM
BAGHDAD JOURNAL: Steve Mumford’s watercolors and drawings will be on display at Tufts.
Art mixes it up with history and politics, peers closely at electronic surveillance, worries about its own usefulness, traipses down the fashion runway, and brings cool stuff back from China and Puerto Rico in exhibitions opening this fall.
The subversive power of printmaking is the subject of “DISSENT!” at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum (32 Quincy St, Cambridge; November 11–February 25), with works including civil-rights activist Sister Corita’s 1969 screenprint proclaiming “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL,” Richard Serra’s 2004 Stop B S, which plays on the name of our commander-in-chief, Goya’s etchings critiquing late-18th-century society, and expressions of protest printed on armbands, T-shirts, and playing cards.
Also at Harvard, current social conditions and questions about the relationship of art to function have Mexican artist Pedro Reyes pursuing unusual projects that include recent research, in collaboration with Harvard’s Cultural Agents Initiative, into the utility of art objects and processes. Reyes’s first major retrospective, “AD USUM: TO BE SED,” is at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts and the Sert Gallery (24 Quincy St, Cambridge; October 26–January 5).
During four trips to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, Steve Mumford traveled with Army units to Baghdad and seven other cities, posting his “Baghdad Journal,” an ongoing record of his experiences in the form of drawings and writings, at www.artnet.com. Watercolors and sepia drawings from these travels, as well as portraits of disabled Iraqi War veterans drawn from his 2006 visit to Brooke Army Medical Center, are on view in “BAGHDAD AND BEYOND: DRAWINGS BY STEVE MUMFORD” at Tufts University Art Gallery (40R Talbot Ave, Medford; through November 19). A different war, also captured up-close and personal, is the subject of “HISTORY IN A SHOEBOX: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, LLEIDA 1936–1939” in the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley College (106 Central St, Wellesley; September 27–October 29), with 20 never-before-seen photos taken by Ramon Rius, a baker from Lérida whose compelling images of the takeover of his Catalan home town by Fascists remained hidden for decades.
Concealed cameras are the stuff of spies, detectives, our government, and even, ubiquitously now, reality TV, where all sorts of folks allow themselves to be taped with their full knowledge. “BALANCE AND POWER: PERFORMANCE AND SURVEILLANCE IN VIDEO ART” at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum (415 South St, Waltham; September 21–December 17) looks at how artists have used surveillance techniques, from early video pioneers Vito Acconci and Bruce Naumann to current practitioners Julia Scher, Harun Farocki, Jenny Marketou, and others fascinated by issues of control, secretiveness, performance, and paranoia. The Rose is also presenting “CLARE ROJAS: HOPE SPRING IS ETERNAL,” (September 21–April 1) a large-scale installation by a California-based artist whose work looks as if it could be at home in a covered wagon or might have just walked out of the pages of a fairy tale, except that some of the men are naked. Nature and gender are lively actors in Rojas’s complex dramas.
Animal symbolism and the historic and ceremonial significance of small bronze bears, cats, rams, and deer from ancient China are the subject of “A BRONZE MENAGERIE: MAT WEIGHTS OF EARLY CHINA” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (280 the Fenway, Boston; October 6–January 14). Mat weights were originally believed to delineate sacred tomb spaces or to hold burial garments in place, but new archæological evidence indicates more-life-related uses, like holding down game boards or woven seating mats. This show reunites a pair of bronze bear mat weights owned and adored by Isabella with many far-flung relatives.
“Nature” and “culture” are often set up as opposing factions — “binary oppositions” — and their relationship with other dualities in our lives (feminine/masculine, body/mind) is the focus of “PEACE KING MOTHER NATURE: PARTS 1 & 2” at Second Gallery (516 East 2nd St, South Boston; Part 1 through October 15, Part 2 October 28–November 26), with work by artists including Michael Bell-Smith and Saya Woolfalk that explores these ideas through an array of lenses: gender, race, technology, video games, crafts.
The intimacies and anxieties of human relations have been the subject of Louise Bourgeois’s innovative and influential art since the 1940s; her work has spanned Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, feminism, and installation art. “LOUISE BOURGEOIS: THE WOVEN CHILD (IN CONTEXT)” at the Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury St, Worcester; October 21–February 25) incorporates a group of her fabric figures and books from 1996 to 2004; the focal point is a major fabric sculpture, The Woven Child (2002), recently acquired by the museum. Also at WAM, “MI PUERTO RICO: MASTER PAINTERS OF THE ISLAND, 1780–1952” (October 8–January 14) has portraits, landscapes, and scenes of everyday life by Puerto Rico’s great masters, José Campeche, Francisco Oller, and Miguel Pou.
In June 2005, the Peabody Essex Museum hosted a workshop offering 22 studio furniture artists from the US, Canada, and China the opportunity to view more than 40 pieces of traditional Chinese furniture and to create new work based on them that would be displayed in “INSPIRED BY CHINA: CONTEMPORARY FURNITUREMAKERS EXPLORE CHINESE TRADITIONS” at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, Salem; October 28–March 4). The show includes 29 examples of historic Chinese furniture together with 28 new works by artists including Ai Weiwei and Judy McKie.
The relationship between our bodies and our electronic technology has been changing dramatically in past decades, and “SENSORIUM: EMBODIED EXPERIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONTEMPORARY ART, PART I” at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames St, Cambridge; October 12–December 31) presents art that explores the influence of technology on the experience of the senses. Mathieu Briand’s customized helmets allow gallery visitors to exchange visual perspectives; there’s also a new sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.
The relationship between consumption and expression takes center stage in “GLOBAL POP: SELECTIONS FROM THE BOSTON DRAWING PROJECT” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery (539 Tremont St, Boston; through October 29), which, curated by Joseph Carroll, has work by Steve Aishman, Alfredo Conde, Robin Dash, Julia Feathergill, and more. It is the pleasures, and excesses, of the flesh that come to mind when we think of Cecily Brown, a passionate painter with an eye for history. Eighteen of her canvases, from 1997 to the present, come to town in “CECILY BROWN” at the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave, Boston; October 18–January 15), giving a feminine twist to the kind of gestural work once associated with big boys like Willem de Kooning and Lucien Freud. And the pleasures, and excesses, of the closet come to the MFA in “FASHION SHOW: PARIS COLLECTIONS 2006” (November 1–March 18): luxurious and provocative new clothing from 10 glamorous designers including Azzedine Alaia, Christian Lacroix, Chanel, Valentino, and Viktor & Rolf.
Copyright © 2006 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL reviewed in the Daily Yomiuri (Osaka, Japan)
Updated May 17, 2006
The Daily Yomiuri - Osaka, Japan
Artists document life in Iraq, Rwanada
Cristoph Mark / Staff Writer
An Artist in Occupied Iraq
By Steve Mumford
Drawn and Quarterly, 239 pp, $34.95
Reading the news from Iraq and other areas of conflict every day can lead one to become jaded, forgetting that the strife involves normal people, not just governments and ideologies.
Baghdad Journal, by painter Steve Mumford... bring[s] readers face to face with the everyday people in Iraq... who live their real lives offscreen and below the headlines.
Sentiment against the Iraq war runs high in much of the world, but support for the war has only recently taken a nosedive in the United States as the news-viewing public is exposed, night after night, to images of the explosions, death and angry Muslims their friends and family are being exposed to in Iraq.
Artist and professor Mumford, however, paints a slightly different picture.
First arriving in the country in April 2003--about a month before we were told it was "mission accomplished"--armed only with art supplies and a press pass from artnet.com, Mumford proceeded to gain the confidence of both locals and occupiers, patiently painting watercolors of them and their surroundings, often (but not always) opting for mundane reality over the reaction-getting photographic images of violence and emotion carried by most news outlets, including this one.
Spanning more than a year spent in and out of the country, Mumford uses watercolor and oil to tell his--and Iraq's--story in an unbiased yet intimate way. His work ranges from character studies to landscapes and even pieces akin to the newsworthy images produced by photojournalists embedded with the U.S. forces.
With his brush, Mumford manages to capture what I imagine to be the feel of Iraq, right down to the intense sunlight, the listless men smoking water pipes under the canopies of teahouses as they try to beat the heat, and the lush greenery that seems out of place in the desert.
As one would expect, Baghdad Journal is about 80 percent Mumford's art, but the remainder of his book comes from the journals of his time in Iraq, proving he is as talented a war correspondent as he is a painter. Through his words, he introduces the reader to poets and artists--one of whom is sitting on an important work he found on the black market that had been stolen from the national museum and that he plans to one day return--a young gay man (very taboo in Iraq) who is thinking about propositioning a soldier, and U.S. soldiers, some of whom are successful with the "hearts and minds" approach, while others...not so much.
There are also moments of tension.
"'American?' he asks, surprised, making a cutting gesture across his neck...Next to me a man asks, 'Mister, you like Muqtada [al-Sadr, a militant Shiite cleric]?'
"'I think it's good that he stopped fighting and became a politician,' I say diplomatically. [The man responds:] 'We love Muqtada. We are Mehdi Army!'
"I get [my interpreter] Ahmed to ask them if they're fighting the U.S. Army. 'Yes, they know what we do in this war,' the man replies cryptically. Most of the men are chuckling at the conversation, but one guy is angry: 'But he mock the Said,' he complains, referring to my imitating a gesture of Muqtada's. 'We will f--- America's women in the a--...'
"'[The other men are] displeased by the profanity: 'Shame! Shame!'
"Undeterred, the man says, "What they say if we kidnap him?'"
...While Straus and Mumford each set out to portray their respective subjects in an unbiased manner, only Mumford seems to maintain that idealism, even though he is very much part of what's going on around him.
...While the two countries' problems are radically different--though perhaps more similar than Iraqis would like to admit--the better understanding these books provide of the people most affected by the fighting will help the worldly-wise cast a more critical eye on the news of the day.
(May. 14, 2006)
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3 D+Q titles reviewed on Student Traveler
Updated May 16, 2006
Readings from the Road: Three Graphic Novels Draw Readers into the World's Worst Places
Article by Alexander Provan
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
(Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95)
The first time Guy Delisle sees the giant sea turtle drifting back and forth in the diminutive aquarium in the lobby of his Pyongyang hotel, he hardly notices it. The second time he draws the scene in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Deslisle has just returned from watching a uniformed woman screaming through a megaphone to encourage the construction workers at an opera house in a country where there is barely any food or electricity, much less opera. This time, it garners a full page: From within the bowels of the darkened lobby, the turtle appears as flotsam in a chamber meant to sustain its life, but without purpose, and only for as long as that life can be totally controlled. In one of the last frames of the graphic novel, after saying goodbye to his guides and translators, Delisle turns around and offers the same confounded wave to the turtle in its cage.
The turtles cage refers to The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, which recounts the ten-year imprisonment of Kang and his family in the Yodok gulag. But in Pyongyang, 40-year-old Quebecer Deslisle's first graphic novel in English, the characters are not prisoners as such. They are the citizens of Pyongyang with whom the author is allowed to interact on his two-month stint as supervisor foreign capitalist at a French animation studio utilizing cheap North Korean labor, and they drift back and forth from one darkened city street to another, from one truth to the next, creating a din of human activity that only serves to point up the stultifying absence of humanity.
Alienation is the subject not the typical alienation of travel but the alienation produced by a total lack of understanding of a culture, coupled with the gnawing feeling that this can't be real: Someone has to crack. But in Pyongyang, no one ever does. In his occasional efforts to coax the turtles into recognizing the circumstances of their captivity, the most subversive remark is an admission from one young man that the North Korean propaganda films shown to the animators as a special treat are boring.
War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995?96
(Drawn & Quarterly, $14.95)
While Pyongyang searches for evidence of humanity, Joe Sacco's War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995?96 is seething with it. Sacco is best known for Palestine, an acclaimed account of the last days of the first intifada, and his other works include Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. Taken as a whole, his oeuvre represents one of the most exciting developments in contemporary war reporting the placement of the ugliest conflicts within familiar places and among familiar faces, the humanization of war.
Soba, the title character of the first profile in War's End, is a hard-partying twentysomething artist, musician, and land-mine planter a local legend in his own right. The scenes change from a bar to the front lines, from a moment of moribund introspection to a dream of making a porno flick about Hegel, from an amputation to a wild dance party. Even amid the growing sense of the conflict's futility, Soba says, if you are in the mood, if you're dancing, everybody sees that there's somebody making an atmosphere, and people join you. We're really fighting for some kind of normal life.
In Christmas with Karadzic, Sacco joins two Sarajevan radio journalists pursuing Milosevic's No. 2 man on the morning of Orthodox Christmas. The Serbian war criminal appears at a small-town church to attend services, and the two journalists are ecstatic to score a brief interview. While they celebrate, Sacco stands in front of the man responsible for the murder of thousands and can see only a modern-day Eichmann. Even when pitted against the raucous humanity of Sarajevo's club scene, forever scarred by Karadzic's fighters, the evil of war cannot be reduced to the hulking body, dreary eyes, and pristine suit of one man.
(Drawn & Quarterly, $34.95)
Fast-forward to the present day, and a conflict whose victims are still being buried, a place as tumultuous as Pyongyang is staid Iraq. Artist Steve Mumford made three trips to Iraq between 2003 and 2004 to record the occupation through sobering, realistic drawings and watercolor paintings. The resulting images and written account of his experiences are collected in Baghdad Journal .
Mumford nonchalantly places the absurdity of life during wartime on parade across pages of interrogations and midnight raids, crowded markets and Iraqi painters in their studios, soldiers sleeping in tents and sheiks congregating in mosques from stasis to sensation, without much sense of equivalence. These are, he writes, the spaces in between the bombs.
Baghdad Journal doesn't get to the bottom of things as much as it shows that, in the middle of a war in which the fog is still too dense for the figures to be sharply limned, there is no bottom. You can only know a war as much as you can know a place and its people: in Baghdad, as in Pyongyang, there is much to see but little to know.
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STEVE MUMFORD in the UK TIMES
Updated May 1, 2006
The Sunday Times
April 23, 2006
Ireland: Taking no prisoners
An exhibition of images from the Iraq war forces us to stare a familiar subject in the face, says Cristin Leach
...When the invasion of Iraq began, the New York artist Steve Mumford had just started painting images of the Vietnam war from photographs. He is the only one among the six artists to have gone to Iraq to work. Embedded with US troops, he spent much of his time painting on the streets of Baghdad over 10 months between 2003 and 2004.
His watercolours offer an almost domestic take on the war, despite most closely resembling the photography of a war reporter. They show soldiers securing rooftops, kneeling behind doorways in alleys where children play and chatting behind mirrored sunglasses, while women in full burquas pass on the street. Although these scenes are clearly set in present-day Baghdad, we could be back in Vietnam.
Mumford aside, the artists included here have responded to the war by interpreting readily available imagery; they have experienced the war in the same way most of us have, through the media. They have reacted to the war as they would to any other significant social phenomenon that has impacted on their world-view.
The show’s title, This Ain’t No Fooling Around, is taken from the Talking Heads’ song Life During Wartime. “The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now,” go the lyrics. It’s a somewhat banal truth: people can get used to anything. Even an image of a naked girl running from a napalm strike, in becoming iconic, loses some of its potency. It is against such potential for complacency that these artists are working. Their impact varies, but they have a collective message: never stop looking, never stop seeing, no matter how familiar the shocking becomes.
This Ain’t No Fooling Around, Rubicon gallery, Dublin, until May 6
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Steve Mumford speaks about BAGHDAD JOURNAL on MPR
Updated April 19, 2006
The art of war
April 4, 2006
Midmorning talks with two combat artists about their work and the tradition of combat art.
Michael D. Fay: Artist-in-residence for the U.S. Marine Corps. He has done two tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
Steve Mumford: A painter from New York City who made four trips to Iraq between 2003 and 2004. His book, "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq," contains paintings and journal entries from his time in Iraq.
BROADCAST: Midmorning, 04/04/2006, 10:06 a.m.
Listen to the interview here: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/04/04/midmorning2/
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STEVE MUMFORD mentioned in "Ashes to Art" exhibition review on ART NET
Updated February 16, 2006
by Ben Davis
"Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix," Jan. 19-Feb. 22, 2006, at Pomegranate Gallery, 133 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
The current group show at SoHo’s Pomegranate Gallery is the first American glimpse of contemporary art from war-torn Iraq. It paints a picture of a national school in formation, and offers a subtle essay on the many things that art can mean in dire times.
Pomegranate, which has only recently opened, claims the distinction of being the first U.S. space dedicated to contemporary art from the Middle East. The setup is a little unusual. A large coffee bar occupies the front of the space, and the gallery is filled with tables where people can chat and have lunch. Gallery director Oded Halahmy, a sculptor who is an Iraqi Jew by birth, says he wanted an atmosphere that recreates the social vibe of cultural spaces in the Middle East. In any case, the works in the current show are considerably more interesting than what might typically hang on café walls.
"Ashes to Art," as the show is called, features painting and sculpture by five members of the "Iraqi Phoenix" group (several of whom are friends of Steve Mumford, the American artist who went to Iraq with a press pass from Artnet Magazine, as well as of Steven Vincent, the former art critic and journalist who was murdered in Basra last year). The "Phoenix" label, like most such categories, is a construction for the consumption of outsiders, coined by the present show’s curator, Peter Hastings Falk. Nevertheless, it does represent a set of coherent esthetic concerns.
The Phoenix group is characterized by a strange two-sidedness. Their work clearly resembles late modernist expressionism -- apparently, Catalan mystic painter Antoni Tàpies was a big influence on an earlier generation of European-trained Iraqis -- while at the same time making use of materials that pack an inevitable political charge.
The collages of Qasim Sabti are a good example. Rectangular compositions with blocks and bands of abstract colors, Sabti’s works have a deliberately scarred quality. Their flaking, tattered surfaces are simple, dramatic statements, somewhere between Josef Albers and Anselm Kiefer.
On inspection, Sabti’s collages are clearly made using book covers, their spines broken and flattened out. It turns out that the works were made using the remains of desecrated books, salvaged from the ground after a three-day looting spree in 2003 left the library of the National Academy of Arts and the National Library in Baghdad gutted, as U.S. forces looked on.
On a similar note, Mohammed Al Shammarey offers a small installation featuring his sketches, held between clear Plexiglas like rare documents in a museum. The fragile pages are covered with crisscrossing scrawls of Arabic and English words, including a repeating stamp saying "Baghdad." Abstract lines and burn marks scour the surface, and the paper has a swarthy look, as if saturated by heat.
These marks turn out to be a sort of memory tracing, reflecting the meaningless echo of the markings on shipments of military equipment Al Shammarey saw during the war. Likewise, the choice to make art using sketchbook pages is an effort to create a makeshift monument to life during the invasion, which Al Shammarey spent manning an Iraqi military morgue in the south of the country, cut off from his normal studio.
Hana Malallah’s work has a similar dynamic. The repeating pattern of interlocking triangles that characterizes her large paintings on wood is layered together with patches of black and tan, so that it sometimes functions as figure, sometimes as ground. Other facts intrude on these formal concerns, however: The pattern is derived from a traditional design of ancient tiles; the black color is produced by paint, tar or burn marks; and the wood is scared by gashes and what appear to be bullet holes. The subtext of Malallah’s abstractions is thus the violent ruin of a proud culture, an impression furthered by the fact that from the bottom of one of the paintings she hangs a fragile, 3D version of the same tile pattern, made of thin black material -- a ruined fragment shattered from the whole.
Nazar Yahya is arguably the artist most influenced by Tàpies. His bulky, muscular paintings are entirely nonfigurative, but their heavily textured surfaces -- all sandy browns and oily blacks scored with thick, repeating marks -- evoke roads crossed by tank treads. Esam Pasha’s brightly colored paintings depicting fanciful characters and surreal beasts, on the other hand, seem a departure from the charred abstraction of the Phoenix style -- more convincing in this respect is his "Tears of Wax" series, explosions of choppy colored marks executed on the back of LP record slips using melted crayons during the bombing of Baghdad in 2003, the scalding wax now congealed to freeze the violent explosions in time.
Given the disastrous material consequences of the U.S.-lead invasion, it is hardly unexpected that Iraqi artists would have an interest in makeshift materials or seared imagery. What is notable, and perhaps frustrating to Western viewers looking for a simple hook, is the?sublimation of this dark political material within an abstract vocabulary. But this stylistic choice is itself a statement: holding onto a tradition that harmoniously melds European inspired painting with Iraqi forms at the very same moment that the media blares crude clichés about the "Clash of Civilizations" on every channel.
Art critics tend to look too much for their politics in content anyway, when real politics is clearly a matter of context. The most timely political statement of this show lies behind the scenes, in the Phoenix artists themselves, a grouping imposed indifferently of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. From the headlines, one might believe that these identities partitioned off every detail of Iraqi life, with no acknowledgment of how, in Iraq’s history, "[o]ther factors -- clan, class, history -- have been equally and often more important," as Tariq Ali argues in his Bush in Babylon. Reducing the picture of Iraq to one of ancient, warring barbarian tribes -- as if there were no secular tradition or multicultural mixing -- conveniently avoids any hint that fanaticism might actually have been amped up by colonialist machinations, let alone that normal Iraqis of all stripes might have rational reasons to object to U.S. actions.
This show paints a different picture. The work by this school of artists, who clearly have so much esthetic and emotional affinity, can be considered a modest first shot returned against shockingly clumsy American ideas about the people of Iraq, ideas that grow more deadly every day.
A second part of "Ashes to Art," featuring five more contemporary Iraqi artists -- Hayder Ali, Kareem Rissan, Ghassan Ghayeb, Gassan Ghaab, Delair Shaker and Ismail Khayat -- opens Feb. 28, 2006.
BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the SF CHRONICLE year's best
Updated December 19, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Best books in a year of war, anxiety
This was the year of the war.
Titles stacked up on Iraq, Afghanistan, Islam, neocons, leftists and terrorism. Books arrived on wars past and their effects today, sometimes offering us parallels for understanding the present bloodletting.
This was true of both nonfiction and fiction. For every The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq and Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq -- to name a couple of the titles on our list of the best books of 2005 -- there was a Shalimar the Clown and The March (to name two more).
Anxiety seems to drive these searches for answers and truths. Even this year's Harry Potter novel ended on a note of uncertainty, looking toward tribulations to come.
On a much brighter note, the Bay Area furthered its claim as the country's most fertile region for writers.
Not even counting the National Book Award-winning (war) novel Europe Central by William Vollmann (who, as his oeuvre would suggest, spends as much time in San Francisco as in his home of Sacramento) or Adam Hochschild's inspiring Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, which was an National Book Award finalist in nonfiction, there was a lot of excellent work published, as our selections bear out.
Among them is interesting work on dark themes, from Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning and Mary Roach's Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife to Alan Kaufman's Matches and Daniel Alarcon's War by Candlelight.
Also, there were two notable books on San Francisco's shadowy worlds -- an anthology of noir fiction and a guidebook on noir films set here.
Must be something in the air. Or a war going on.
The following list reflects books reviewed between Dec. 19, 2004, and Dec. 11, 2005, in Book Review.
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq by Steve Mumford (Drawn & Quarterly; 224 pages; $34.95): Watercolors depicting Mumford's observations on four visits to Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
Chronicle Book Editor
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL mentioned in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY - YEAR'S BEST
Updated December 15, 2005
The Year in Books
by Karen Holt
7 November 2005
Publishers Weekly p.42
Volume 252, Issue 44
This isn't a bestseller list, though some of the books are bestsellers. Nor is it, for the most part, a list of what we consider to be the best books of the year, though we are taking the opportunity to mention some titles we think deserve attention. What we offer here is our somewhat arbitrary, but entirely heartfelt, take on the year in books.
Like just about everyone, we tend to look for trends. Some are obvious. This year seemed to bring an unusual number of terrific memoirs by unknowns, or not-very-well knowns. The majority involved a combination of at least two of the following: alcoholism, troubled family relationships, the Kennedys. Not surprisingly, books about Iraq also figure heavily in publishers' lists this year. And then there is Scott Peterson, who, with the help of several women (most notably Judith Regan) has become a one-man book trend.
Some of our lists are based on less obvious connections. We noticed, for example, that several authors this year followed up very successful books with similar titles. The follow-ups are selling well, well enough to make PW 's bestseller lists, but none appear to be headed for the blockbuster territory inhabited by the earlier books. We also noticed that some debuts, mostly novels, were getting a lot of noise. In some cases the hype actually worked.
Books with titles we think are kind of funny got their own list, though calling colorful titles a trend is probably a stretch. After all, despite a tendency to copycat their competitors and themselves (witness all those novels about young women and their fabulous, terrible jobs), publishers still publish books, not trends.
Which is why we couldn't hold ourselves to offering proper lists and instead include categories that only encompass a single title. A sensational sports tell-all that led to serious reform, a "comeback" novel published before the author turned 30, a cautionary tale about a brand of teenage sex parties that may or may not exist and a book of wacky medical claims that's selling in the millions all seem like singular (if in some cases dubious) accomplishments.
From the Front Lines
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq , Steve Mumford (Drawn & Quarterly)
A painter's vision of a country at war.
Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the Boston Globe
Updated December 15, 2005
December 11, 2005
Capturing the passion of music and war
[D&Q says: please note that BAGHDAD JOURNAL is not a Graphic Novel!]
On a nonmusical plane, several serious works have been released recently. Among the best are Steve Mumford's ''Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq" (Drawn & Quarterly, 244 pp., $34.95) and Joe Kubert's ''Jew Gangster: A Father's Admonition" (iBooks, 143 pp., $22.95).
Mumford's book is a full-color diary documenting four trips the New York artist made to Iraq between spring 2003 and fall 2004. The art is vigorous, impressionistic, and realistic. Like Mumford's writing, it's neutral, too -- at least on the surface. But between the lines and bleeding through the color washes are passion and sorrow. There are no heroes in Mumford's meticulous depictions of this ever-shifting, treacherous zone. There are, however, honesty and ambiguity and a reassuring sense of normalcy. Mumford's watercolors capture the temperature of the place, the hot light that gives Iraq its tension and danger. What's valuable is the way Mumford gives voice to Iraqi artists, to Iraqi kids playing, to what passes for regularity in a country that, he suggests, is inappropriately dramatized by mainstream media.
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Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the Christian Science Monitor
Updated December 14, 2005
The Christian Science Monitor
Arts & Entertainment > Art
from the December 14, 2005 edition
At war, with just a pen and brush
Steve Mumford joined the ranks of combat artists armed only with a sketch pad. He spent 10 months embedded with US troops.
By April Austin | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
From the beginning of the Iraq war, Americans have been inundated with news, photos, and video footage of the conflict. They show a country under siege, a dangerous and inhospitable place. But one artist, New York painter Steve Mumford, wasn't convinced that chaos was the whole story. He made four visits to Iraq between April 2003 and October 2004, attaching himself to United States military units, and deploying pen and brush to document what he saw.
The results of his 10-1/2 months in Iraq - a remarkable series of pen-and-ink drawings and lively watercolors, along with his stories - have been collected in a new book, "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq" (Drawn & Quarterly Books, Montreal).
Mr. Mumford says his goal was not to take sides, but to provide a visual record of the time he spent and the people he met - including both soldiers and Iraqi citizens.
Combat art has a long tradition. In the days of Lord Nelson and British dominance at sea, painters depicted daring naval victories based solely on survivors' tales. During the American Civil War, Winslow Homer covered major skirmishes as well as the daily life of soldiers for Harper's Weekly. In World War II, the US armed forces hired more than 100 military and civilian artists to capture the war for posterity.
Mumford "combat artist" as shorthand to explain his presence and to persuade commanders to let him go on missions with troops.
On his first trip in April 2003, armed with only a press pass from the online art journal artnet.com, Mumford paid his own way to Kuwait City and caught a ride into Iraq with two French journalists. On that trip and subsequent visits, he sought out smaller bases where he could stay with soldiers and record their doings with minimal Army red tape.
"One thing in my favor," Mumford says in a phone interview, "is that most people in the military are familiar with the concept of 'combat artist.' " The real point, for him, was "to go to the source. That's my mantra," he says: to get out of the studio and into the world. He is strongly against what he calls the "distancing of contemporary art."
But painting pictures in a war zone? Mumford says that while it was a challenge to pull out a drawing pad each time, no one questioned why he was there. He writes that people took for granted the fact that history was being made, so why wouldn't an artist be interested?
Mumford did not see much combat during his four trips, but security was clearly deteriorating by the time of his last visit in October 2004. The units with which he traveled were mostly guarding installations, searching for insurgents and weapons, and trying to sort out problems the Iraqis brought to them. Unlike news media, Mumford was not obliged to cover the latest bloody attack. But that didn't shield him from hostile fire and dangerous situations, which he describes in the book.
At least one commander told him, "Follow the soldiers' instructions, because they'll put their lives at risk to save you." But no one tried to censor his drawings or discourage him from going out on missions.
In a village or cafe, the sight of Mumford with a sketch pad attracted attention. Iraqis would crowd around him as he drew, pointing and making comments in a friendly way. "Iraqi men are just crazy to have their pictures taken or painted," Mumford says. The women, in line with Muslim customs, did not approach him. Rarely did anyone object to being drawn - except a suspected insurgent who strongly protested, the artist says.
Mumford would ask before sketching a soldier if he felt he might be intruding on a private moment. Nonetheless, the watercolors and drawings in the book reflect what seem to be dozens of private moments - soldiers on guard duty in a state of suspended watchfulness, an Iraqi shopkeeper's son sitting patiently in the street, an Iraqi man staring pensively at the ground in a tumbledown neighborhood. These are moments that make up the human drama that Mumford experienced in Iraq, in all its tedium, fear, anger, patience, pride, and hope.
These qualities animate Mumford's work, which started as sketches that he photographed digitally in Iraq and sent home as computer files. About one-third of his pieces were worked on further after he returned to New York. "Drawing is more subtle and can tell a story better than a photograph," he says.
Although Mumford praises the work of photojournalists, he sees drawing as more finely tuned to the subjective rather than the literal. We all recall things differently, he says, and in the hour or so spent drawing, he can bring aspects to the fore for emphasis, whereas a photographer captures strictly what the lens sees.
For many combat artists, the depiction of hardware - weapons and machinery - is the key to authenticity. Mumford's work contains convincing images of razor wire, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and M-16s, but they are incidental. The real story is conveyed in a soldier's stance, an expression, or a gesture. "I wanted to capture the human drama, and props were crucial to let you know you were in Iraq," he says, "but the people came first."
The Iraq trips, which Mumford pursued as a means of building a body of drawings for the book, troubled his wife. "We had a deal that I could stay as long as I wanted on the last trip, but it would truly be the last," Mumford says. "I would call her every day, so she would know I was OK. I sometimes lied about what I was doing so she wouldn't worry too much."
Now, back at home in New York, Mumford recalls with greatest fondness the Iraqi artists he befriended. "They told me how bad things were under Saddam - the psychological damage [done] to several generations of Iraqis." Mumford did not support the American invasion, but after his visits, he says he began to separate US government policies from the actions of the military men and women who were sent there.
This view did not sit well with some in the art world who were opposed to the war. Still, Mumford's work garnered attention from ABC News to National Public Radio. Audiences responded to his evenhanded treatment of Iraq.
"He showed a constructive effort running alongside the destructive element," says Kenneth Baker, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Mumford's art "embarrassed other politically oriented contemporary art.... The risk involved [in doing the drawings] was real. You don't see that very often," Mr. Baker says.
Mumford came away from Iraq with a favorable, though not uncritical view of the military. "It's about patriotism, about getting the job done, not about the politics. They take pride in their work, and want to be appreciated."
Soldiers responded positively to Mumford's postings on artnet.com, he says.
"They liked the grittiness and the realism, probably because I kept all the swear words," he says with a laugh.
THE ARTIST: Artist Steve Mumford sketches in Iraq. At times his presence drew crowds of Iraqis.
COURTESY OF M. SCOTT MAHASKEY/ARMY TIMES
CAREFUL CROSSING: A woman walked on a street in Khark, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad, after a long snipers' duel had ended. People were just starting to emerge from their homes.
STANDING TOGETHER: Iraqi women and children in Ramadi waited while soldiers searched their house after an attack nearby in February 2004.
ON PATROL: Lt. Caleb Cage of the 1/6 Field Artillery led a night patrol out of Forward Operating Base Gabe to hostile Buritz, Iraq, in August 2004. He was navigating the maze of dirt roads using a GPS display on a computer screen.
COURTESY OF DRAWN AND QUARTERLY
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Steve Mumford talks about BAGHDAD JOURNAL on CBS NEWS
Updated December 13, 2005
Saddam Hussein Goes Back to Court Tomorrow; Getting Home From the Holidays
John Roberts, Joie Chen, Randall Pinkston, Jerry Bowen, Lara Logan, John Blackstone
27 November 2005
CBS News: Evening News - Sunday
JOHN ROBERTS, CBS ANCHOR: Good evening, I`m John Roberts. Saddam Hussein goes back to court tomorrow as a top judge in the trial is threatened with death. And we`ll also have these stories:
JOIE CHEN, CBS CORRESPONDENT: Are we there yet? I`m Joie Chen at Reagan National Airport on getting home from the holidays.
RANDALL PINKSTON, CBS CORRESPONDENT: Are you shopping for a $200,000 diamond or a fine painting? Costco and Sam`s Club would like your business. I`m Randall Pinkston. I`ll have that story.
JERRY BOWEN, CBS CORRESPONDENT: I`m Jerry Bowen in Torrance, California, with the car of the future: a million-dollar baby that runs on hydrogen fuel. And it`s not a Rolls.
ANNOUNCER: This is the CBS Evening News with John Roberts.
[Steve Mumford segment:]
ROBERTS: Combat artists have been side by side with U.S. soldiers since the days of the civil war. And Iraq is no exception. New York artist Steve Mumford spent more than a year with U.S. troops. His work appears in the new book, "Baghdad Journal."
And that`s tonight`s "Sunday Cover," a unique perspective on a war that has claimed more than 2,100 American lives.
STEVE MUMFORD, ARTIST: I went to Iraq to paint whatever I would see, you know, I wanted to experience what life was like in a war zone and record that. There are things about Iraq that are beautiful; there are things about Iraq that are scary. It`s not like everywhere I went there was sort of terrible Iraqi suffering going on, and I think that has to do with the fact that human beings in a war zone are going to try to make the best of it.
One of the things I wanted to record was the interaction between U.S. military units and the Iraqis themselves. It`s almost like two worlds that hardly ever come into contact.
For the enlisted men, their lives tend to be very, very focused on, you know, just those hours when they have to not only perform the mission, but be incredibly alert. I was just trying to capture some of the tension of these guys waiting for the order to go in, knowing that they were going to facing combat.
Whenever the kids see soldiers on patrol, they`ll come racing up to the Humvees, because they know these guys have candy.
The parents, I think, tolerated it; I think they had mixed feelings about it. Life in a war zone has its aspects of normalcy, as well as its aspects of irrationality and craziness.
This was a woman who was killed with her family in her car. This was just after the insurgents had hit a vehicle we were travelling in with a rocket-propelled grenade.
I had this sense of danger. On the other hand, pulling out my drawing pad and starting to draw was a way to focus that, that kind of nervousness, so just as the soldiers were focusing on their mission, I think I was trying to focus on making a drawing.
I found with myself I was never able to kind of find any easy morals in this story. On the other hand, there are certain universals. For example, the fear or uncertainty in a prisoner`s eyes.
More than anything else, the sense I got from Iraq was this is a complex situation, and people react in complex and unexpected ways. It`s not simple and black and white.
ROBERTS: Artist Steve Mumford says he found his experiences in Iraq so moving that they will be the focus of his work for at least the next year.
We`ll be right back.
D&Q titles in the MONTREAL HOUR gift guide
Updated December 6, 2005
December 1st, 2005
Books, books, more books for the holidays
Gifts for geeks
Nothing says "I love you" like 250 pages of small print! Here are some books Hour writers enjoyed
The Push Man and Other Stories, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn and Quarterly)
The brainchild of renowned comic artist Adrian Tomine, who pens the volume's introduction, this collection of comic strips by Yoshihiro Tatsumi reveals to the English world the heretofore untranslated work of a man known as the grandfather of alternative Japanese comics. The designation is appropriate: Tatsumi, born in 1935 and active in comics for decades, makes quiet, dark biographies of troubled people making their misguided way in an overpopulated and heartless society - fare that could be signed by anyone today, from Joe Sacco to Julie Doucet. The beautifully bound book will be a delightful discovery for anyone into the medium, enveloping the reader in an addictive world of sexual alienation and emotional crippling. (Isa Tousignant)
Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Three, by various artists (Drawn and Quarterly)
If you're looking to introduce someone on your list to the joys of narrative art, then a compendium like this is a great - and inexpensive - place to start. The crème of this third showcase of work by artists published by Drawn and Quarterly is one of my all-time favourite comic creators, Geneviève Elverum (previously Geneviève Castrée), whose transporting vision and deft draftsmanship grow with every passing year. Also included in this collection is work by two Americans (a depressingly lovely comic by L.A.'s Sammy Harkham and an ominous, surreal mystery by Matt Broersma), which all together give a good, wide spanning perspective on what graphic writing can be. (Isa Tousignant)
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq, by Steve Mumford (Drawn and Quarterly)
Each one of the many colour plates in this impressive volume is an accomplished work of art that expresses nearly tangibly the warmth, smell and sense of a place in time. Mumford is an New York-based American war artist who produced his journal after four voyages to war-torn Iraq in 2003 and '04. His commentary is fascinating and intensive, if a bit frustratingly objective for those whose political leanings may be more critical. The strength of his perspective rests within his humanizing of all sides of this polarized conflict, from soldier to citizen. Baghdad Journal is a rich read, which, if given as a gift, will provide its recipient with days of intelligent entertainment. (Isa Tousignant)
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STEVE MUMFORD speaks about BAGHDAD JOURNAL on NEWSHOUR
Updated December 6, 2005
THE ART OF WAR
PBS - USA
November 29, 2005
A report on the artwork of Steve Mumford, an artist who spent ten months in Iraq. The report explores Mumford’s experience painting the war and the people of Iraq.
JEFFREY BROWN: We're used to seeing the war in Iraq through the lens of a camera, video on the nightly news, photos in the morning paper.
But here's another view: Drawings and paintings of American soldiers and Iraqi caught up in the conflict around them. They're the work of artist Steve Mumford who made four trips to Iraq, ten months in all, part of the time embedded with military units, mostly on his own walking the streets of Baghdad, always with a sketch pad and pen or brush in hand.
Several years ago Mumford painted a series of canvases depicting the Vietnam War. When the Iraq invasion began, he decided to go and see it unfold firsthand, inspired by the example of Winslow Homer who went to Civil War battlefields and showed the results in Harper's weekly magazine.
This spring almost 150 years later, Harper's printed a series of Mumford's paintings and drawings in an eight-page spread titled "Watching the Tempest."
While in Iraq Mumford had an even more direct line to the public: artnet.com, an Internet site about the art world on which he posted his work accompanied by descriptions of his experience.
These have now been brought together in a new book called "Baghdad Journal."
When we talked to Mumford recently at his New York studio, he told us first of the doubts that set in immediately after he drove from Kuwait into Iraq with two journalists.
STEVE MUMFORD: And I suddenly felt like an impostor. You know, I wasn't a photojournalist. I didn't have a satellite dish to beam any images to, you know, a news organization. And it just seemed so almost surreal to pull out a drawing pad.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's almost a quaint idea, isn't it, to be drawing a war at a time when we're all so used to the quick camera click or the video that we see every night on the news?
STEVE MUMFORD: Yeah, it's true. I mean, I think post World War II people got so used to the idea of the camera being the kind of device of record that drawing came to seem completely outmoded.
JEFFREY BROWN: While the journalists he knew were compelled to follow the latest action, Mumford says he had more freedom to draw whatever he came across. Often that meant capturing a behind-the-scenes look at everyday life that's rarely portrayed.
STEVE MUMFORD: For example, in Baghdad, you know, there's so many marketplaces, and the marketplaces remain these vibrant kind of places where people go to buy their food or whatever. That's a key part of life in Baghdad which tends to get neglected because it doesn't make an interesting war story.
But for me I wanted to show the whole sort of spectrum of life, you know, in Iraq, especially in the early days when I felt safer walking around Baghdad I would set out in the morning with my drawing supplies and just walk around Baghdad, so if I saw something that looked interesting I'd sit down and start drawing and right away have a crowd of Iraqis surrounding me.
JEFFREY BROWN: People were real interested?
STEVE MUMFORD: They were real interested. They were watching every move of my pen as I drew. And if I drew somebody they knew, they would lean over and kind of stab at the paper and say, Ahmed, there's Ahmed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Among the slices of Iraqi life, a shopkeeper's son, stray dogs in Baghdad, backgammon players, a man smoking a pipe. A number of drawings portray members of Baghdad's artistic community, several of whom befriended Mumford.
Similarly, Mumford was able to show the behind-the-scenes lives of American soldiers, hitting golf balls into the Tigris at dark, relaxing after a long day.
Soldiers and Marines over there, I know, got used to the idea of having journalists along but when you came to them as an artist, did they -- did that seem strange, kind of weird to them?
STEVE MUMFORD: I think they may have been a little disappointed at first.
JEFFREY BROWN: Disappointed?
STEVE MUMFORD: I would get into a humvee going on patrol and the soldier would say, so, what organization are you with -- you know -- maybe expecting ABC or CNN or something like that. I'd say, well, I'm an artist with artnet.com. And there would be this big silence in the humvee.
JEFFREY BROWN: Like, "what?"
STEVE MUMFORD: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: But military personnel did accept him, Mumford says, and he was allowed to join a number of patrols and see action firsthand, including a tense fight against insurgents in Baqouba.
STEVE MUMFORD: Soldiers were on patrol. I had maybe 10 minutes to try to, you know, at least start a drawing. I wanted to capture some of that, the tenseness on the street at that time and the alertness that the soldiers felt on patrol. I wanted to be able to communicate the feelings of worry and at the same time trying to be prepared that that platoon was feeling at that moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: I'm sure you've had a lot of time to think about this and been asked about it. But how do you describe the difference between what the camera captures and what you capture in your drawings?
STEVE MUMFORD: I think that the drawings capture Iraq in a more personal way. You know, we're bombarded with images from the war. At this point your average American has probably seen thousands of images of soldiers and Iraqis. When they look at a drawing, they see something which they know somebody has spent time, by hand, recording, maybe over a period of an hour.
Some people have said it's almost like it slowed the war down for them. And that was my experience of it -- that since it took so long to make a drawing, there was an hour in which people were interacting with me as I made it.
And each thing that I saw I had to spend some time kind of looking at, understanding and then making an image of, whereas a photograph, you take it and there it is; it's finished.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting because you're not claiming that the drawing is more objective or, quote, honest than the camera but the very subjectivity somehow is more real in a sense?
STEVE MUMFORD: That's actually an excellent way to put it. It's absolutely subjective. It's less objective than a photograph but maybe it's that very subjectivity that draws the viewer in and holds their interest in a different way from the way that they would look at a photograph.
JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Mumford, thanks for talking to us.
STEVE MUMFORD: Sure, it was my pleasure.
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Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL in Kansas City Star
Updated December 6, 2005
Kansas City Star
Art and architecture
Imagine these visual treats under the tree
By STEVE PAUL
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq , by Steve Mumford (Drawn & Quarterly; $34.95). In a world captive to Live! Video! Now!, the older arts of sketching and watercolors may feel quaint. Yet, in the talented hands of someone like Mumford, they hold the power to slow us down and make us look more deeply than your average, passing TV flutter.
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STEVE MUMFORD'S BAGHDAD JOURNAL in New York Magazine Round-Up
Updated November 7, 2005
Last Exit to Baghdad
The first soldier memoirs and a sweeping history describe a war unlike any we’ve ever known.
By Keith Gessen
"The music plays throughout the day, Hendrix, the Stones, the Who, music from a different war.”
—Anthony Swofford, Jarhead, describing the day Iraq accepted terms ending the first Gulf War.
All war books are the same and tell the same story. Leaders promise glory and gold; young men heed their call; and then they are gassed, or have their arms blown off and their faces burned, and they watch their friends die, their skulls torn apart—and then they themselves have to kill in turn.
But wars are different even if the books remain the same, and as the books about this new war begin to come out—the soldier memoirs appearing in one batch this fall, exactly a year after the first books by embedded journalists and military historians—we can begin to see, in their very slight differences from the war books of the past, the particular outlines of this lonely, episodic, very dirty war.
The artist Steve Mumford’s beautiful watercolor paintings of the war, one of which was on the cover of this month’s war-themed Harper’s and which are collected in his Baghdad Journal, show in floating brown, orange, and the occasional bright red and blue the scenes that he witnessed in Iraq: They are almost all waiting scenes, or police scenes, scenes of boredom. There is hardly any combat, no battlefield; there are only Americans on patrol, trying to bait the insurgents into firing on them, and occasionally, in the oppressive heat and boredom, booking a hooded insurgent back at the base. The paradigmatic image of Vietnam was Eddie Adams’s terrible photograph of a Vietcong soldier being shot directly in the temple, the grimace on the man’s face in plain, direct sight of the camera; the paradigmatic images of this war have all been of men wearing hoods.
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq.
Drawn and Quarterly. $34.95.
for the full article, click below.
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BOSTON GLOBE on STEVE MUMFORD & BAGHDAD JOURNAL
Updated October 31, 2005
Raised in Cambridge, Steve Mumford got himself embedded with military forces in Iraq. Why in the world would a painter do that?
By Rachel Strutt
October 30, 2005
In artist Steve Mumford's studio, a fifth-floor walk-up in New York City's Lower East Side, there is a 12-foot papier-mache shark hanging from the ceiling. The tail is swishing, and there's a bloody gash below its gills. Mumford created the model as a sort of muse for an old series of oil paintings, yet all his work seems imbued with its wildness and motion, especially the work he has created as an eyewitness in Iraq.
Mumford is a storyteller, and, as far as he's concerned, stories should involve action and danger. "War is obviously one of the most dramatic narratives we have," says the 44-year-old artist, who grew up in Cambridge and now lives in Manhattan with his wife, artist Inka Essenhigh. "When you're in the war zone, you're living with a heightened appreciation. It's like being on a drug."
During 2003 and 2004, Mumford traveled on his own to occupied Iraq four times to chronicle military and civilian life. He made hundreds of sketches and kept a journal; entries were posted at Artnet.com, an online magazine. Now his writings and paintings have been collected in a book, Baghdad Journal, from Drawn and Quarterly publishers.
Inspired by Winslow Homer's depictions of the Civil War for Harper's Weekly, Mumford is reviving an almost-forgotten genre: combat art. Painters including John Singer Sargent and Max Beckmann rendered combat images from World War I. During World War II, there were numerous artists who actually worked on the battlefield; some were official artists for the military, others for magazines like Life. Since then, photography has pushed the tradition of combat paintings, sketches, and illustrations almost to the wayside. A Marine reservist named Michael Fay served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat artist, but Mumford is one of only a handful of independent artists to have worked in Iraq.
Though the onslaught of Iraqi war photographs can be numbing, Mumford's images are commanding. Given the subject matter, the techniques - pen and ink, and watercolors - are unexpected. The draftsmanship is energetic and elegant. And most striking, his vantage point is close-up and engaging.
Mainstream attention increased after Mumford's last trip to Iraq, from June to October of last year. Since his return, galleries and museums nationwide have featured his Iraq images, including P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a museum in Queens that included some of Mumford's sketches in "Greater New York 2005," a high-profile show organized jointly with the Museum of Modern Art.
Talking with Mumford about his work, it's not hard to imagine him embedded with American forces. Wearing a faded T-shirt and khakis patched with duct tape, the artist looks like a boho GI Joe.
"I had a lot of sympathy for the American soldiers," says Mumford, who spent a total of six months embedded in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and other cities. "I thought most of them were doing a pretty good job; I never saw any Abu Ghraib stuff," he says.
Like the soldiers, Mumford often wore a helmet, goggles, earplugs, and a bulletproof flak jacket. While the soldiers stood guard or returned fire, Mumford sketched scenes quickly, often conflating 15 to 20 minutes of action into a single image.
"The drawing [would] accumulate characters," Mumford says. "It was like a stage where characters come and go. I made editorial decisions about who I wanted to include." If he was unable to complete a sketch, Mumford would snap a few digital shots and complete the work later. He is quick to admit that drawing is more subjective than photography. But paradoxically, by slowing down the process of capturing an image, Mumford achieves a depth and intimacy rarely seen in photographs of the conflict.
There are some art critics, like Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice, who dismiss Mumford's work as a tepid portrayal of war's extremity. Certainly, his work does not cry out against war's horrors in the tradition of Goya, but it can hardly be called propaganda, either. In images of soldiers sleeping, killing time, and keeping watch, Mumford conveys dreariness as much as hellfire or valor. And in roughly a third of his works in the book, Mumford depicts Iraqis - artists relaxing and talking at a garden teahouse, men playing backgammon on the street, a slouching teenager at a kebab shop. As photojournalists in Iraq felt the pressure to create dramatic images for their papers' front pages, Mumford was free to depict a full range of scenes, from battle zone to banal.
"There is no sensationalism in his work," says P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss. "It's very honest and true. He's not using the war to gain attention." She adds, "Feelings about the war are so intense, I think the book may be consumed emotionally versus artistically. But that's not to say he's not taken seriously."
With solo shows at Postmasters gallery in New York and his slot in the P.S. 1-MoMA group show, Mumford has broken into the world of high art. But his path there was long and circuitous. After graduating from The Cambridge School of Weston, Mumford headed to the University of California Santa Cruz. He spent a year as an anthropology major before ditching the books in favor of real-life trekking in Peru and Brazil. "I'd stumble on Indian tribes and get their permission to draw what I saw," he says.
Mumford landed back in Boston and attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he received an undergraduate art degree. One of Mumford's professors there, painter Henry Schwartz, made a lasting impression. "He wanted you to locate what really interested you. . . . [He believed] your only hope of making art was being truthful. Years later, those words are still resounding."
Rachel Strutt is a freelance writer in Somerville. E-mail her at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL in East Bay Express
Updated October 17, 2005
Art of War
Inside Steve Mumford's Iraq
Published: Wednesday, October 5, 2005
The Real World
Many of us who have never been to Iraq think we already know the country -- or at least everything we need to know -- from the daily photojournalism of various news orgs and from such documentaries as Gunner Palace. But there are other ways to graphically cover a war, and other ways to get to know a people. In the buildup to the Iraq conflict in 2003, New York artist Steve Mumford wanted to be there so badly he glommed press credentials from the online magazine Artnet (Artnet.com), sneaked across the Iraqi border from Kuwait in an SUV with two French reporters, and got himself embedded with a US Army unit from the 3rd Infantry Division, part of the force that took Baghdad. Sketchbook and pen in hand, he rode in a Bradley alongside the soldiers through places like Tikrit, Samarra, and Baqubah -- posting his watercolors, drawings, and 75,000-word commentary online through the end of 2004. Now Mumford's war coverage is collected in a thoughtful and rewarding new art book, Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (Drawn & Quarterly, $34.95), in which we learn that the artist was often greeted with gentle curiosity by Iraqis when he began to simply sit and draw, rather than point-and-shoot, what he observed. Scenes of wartime street life, firebase action, and a visit by the Miller Lite Catfight Girls run through the book, as well as studies of a boy at a kebab stand or a Shiite protest march. Says Mumford: "I didn't see a lot of combat. I didn't see many bodies. ... But I believe I captured some of the reality of Iraq for many soldiers who were there when I was and for the Iraqis I got to know."
Mumford appears in person next Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) at Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. You can also catch him the next day at Cody's new San Francisco store. CodysBooks.com -- Kelly Vance
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Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the LA TIMES
Updated October 3, 2005
The art of war
By Alina Tugend, Special to The Times.
September 25, 2005
(Drawn & Quarterly)
It's hard, Steve Mumford says, drawing with a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet on. It's hard drawing when sniper bullets are flying.
But it's also hard to capture the quiet moments — a woman lying dead on the side of the road, a soldier saluting at the memorial service for a fallen comrade.
The work of Mumford, a Manhattan-based artist who spent 11 months over the last two years in Iraq, looks back to a pre-digital, even pre-photography age, when drawings and paintings of combat were often the only way civilians grasped the bloodiness of war.
On Oct. 15, a compilation of Mumford's drawings and essays, "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq," will be published. A traveling exhibition of the work, which has shown in museums and galleries across the country, will open Oct. 6 at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum in Dallas.
Mumford uses pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors to present a multifaceted view of the Iraq war: soldiers creeping down alleys with guns at the ready, or playing golf at Saddam Hussein's palace; a boy sitting at a kebab stand; Iraqi prisoners lined up against a wall.
Even in this high-tech age, paintings can offer a different vision than photographs, Mumford says: "A drawing is generally not about a decisive moment. It's more about scenes between the moments. The drawings slow down the war."
The Iraq paintings were a change for Mumford, 44, who is known for dramatic landscapes — oils and collages.
He was working on a series of paintings about Vietnam when the war in Iraq broke out. He had always loved the Civil War paintings of Winslow Homer, he says, and saw the Iraq conflict as an opportunity to become a modern-day combat artist.
He bought his own ticket and arrived in Kuwait City in April 2003, carrying a camera, paint and Japanese brushes. Reality hit, and he wondered how he would get into Iraq with no contacts, armed only with a press pass from artnet.com, an online arts magazine.
Eventually Mumford hooked up with two French reporters who offered him a seat in their rented SUV.
At his first stop in Iraq, a Basra hospital, "I had an urge to return to Kuwait, but realized that there was no way to do so," Mumford writes in the introduction to his book. "The only thing I could do was to start drawing."
He arrived in Baghdad after the city had fallen and showed up one morning at the headquarters of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Over the roaring engines of a Bradley fighting vehicle, Mumford asked if he could become embedded with the division.
A unit commander, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, seemed interested: "Make art? Terrific! That's great, just great! Jump on!" Mumford writes in his first online journal entry, which he began posting, along with his art, on artnet.com in August 2003. Fifteen installments followed.
Over a total of four trips to Iraq in two years, Mumford spent about 70% of his time embedded with American troops; the rest of the time he was on his own.
Some drawings he did on the spot. At other times, often when it was too dangerous to dally, he snapped photos and painted later.
Mumford's drawings and watercolors — he did more than 500 of them — cover a variety of subjects and styles. Some are filled with color, such as one of women in bright red and orange clothing waiting with their children while soldiers search their house. Many are bursting with activity, like the painting depicting kids scrambling for candy tossed by soldiers. Others are simple pen-and-ink drawings, such as those of reporters sleeping in their barracks.
Then there are the placid scenes that scarcely look like the Baghdad that appears on the nightly news, such as Iraqis enjoying a garden teahouse.
Esram Pasha, an Iraqi artist, met Mumford while working as an interpreter with the U.S. Army. He introduced Mumford to his friends
"I look at the paintings and they remind me of the times we used to sit there and talk for hours," Pasha says. Mumford "didn't wait for anyone or anything. He just got himself into Baghdad and started working as a professional artist."
For Pasha, there's no question that war photographs and Mumford's paintings embrace very different concepts. "You can capture the whole world in one painting," he says.
At P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, which included pieces by Mumford in its "Greater New York 2005" show, director Alanna Heiss calls the work "beautiful oddities." In the galleries, she says, she would see how his drawings and watercolors drew viewers in.
They "manage to be static and moving at the same time," she says. "When we look at realism now, it tends to feel very artificial because it's not the current vocabulary of art. Steve's very gifted. Otherwise, his work would seem as stilted or childish or propaganda. There's no artifice there."
Kate Sheerin, an assistant curator at the Meadows Museum, says it was the combination of journalism and art that drew her to Mumford's work, but "what really put it on the front burner was how beautifully done the pieces are.
"Looking, you can see the ones he's done on the spot and the ones he's done from photographs — he doesn't hide that, and to me it's conceptually interesting. There are interesting angles and compositions, and each one is stylistically different — some are very elegant line drawings. He clearly didn't just find a formula and start cranking it out."
Sheerin points out that Mumford's ambiguous feelings about the war are reflected in the work.
"He shows respect toward Iraqis but also a lot of camaraderie with the soldiers," she says.
Mumford acknowledges his mixed sentiments.
"I didn't go in with pro- or anti-military feelings. I didn't feel Iraq was connected to 9/11, but I felt the possibility of creating a democracy was legitimate and still might work," he says. "But you can't have too many illusions. There's a very fine line between not letting the Islamists gain too much control but acknowledging it is an Islamist country."
In his time in Iraq, Mumford says, he gained respect for the professionalism of thesoldiers he was with. He says he alsowas usually greeted warmly by the Iraqis, who would gather around as he was sketching.
Invariably, he says, the women would disappear if he tried to draw them, while the men were eager to pose.
Although Mumford is a rarity, he is not alone. The Marine Corps, in fact, has 50 of its own active-duty combat illustrators.
Mumford says he wasn't in constant danger — in fact, there would be stretches with no fighting at all. But he knew well the risk he and others confronted by being in Iraq. Steven Vincent, a freelance journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Basra in August, was a friend. The men shared an apartment for a few months in Baghdad.
Mumford says he met a number of journalists and photographers who were drawn to war zones, and "many different fantasies get played out in that realm. Deep down you don't believe you're the one who's going to get killed."
Even so, he says he has no wish to return to Iraq.
"If I went back, I would be a professional war artist," he says. "And that's not great for a marriage."
He and his wife, the painter Inka Essenhigh, agreed that he could stay as long as he wanted on the last trip — but that it would be the final visit.
For now, he is following in the footsteps of Winslow Homer by working on oil paintings of his Baghdad work. And he is attempting to get officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to allow him to paint the wounded soldiers there.
He also acknowledges that he is enjoying the acclaim his work is receiving, seeing it as proof that "realism is making a comeback.
"Art shouldn't be an inside joke that most people don't get," he says. "It should be appealing on a very basic level."
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Steve Mumford interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation!
Updated September 22, 2005
Interview: Steve Mumford discusses being a combat artist illustrating life in Iraq
19 September 2005
NPR: Talk of the Nation
NEAL CONAN, host:
In 2003, Steven Mumford went from--to cover the cover--excuse me. In 2003, Steven Mumford went to cover the cover, not with a microphone or a video camera or even a laptop. He went with a sketchpad. Steven Mumford is an artist who spent two years documenting the war in Iraq, at times embedded with the National Guard. The result is a book called "Baghdad Journal." It includes dozens of paintings, mostly watercolors, along with side notes from his journal.
Steven Mumford joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Congratulations on the book.
Mr. STEVEN MUMFORD (Author, "Baghdad Journal"): Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: You went as a--there's been a long tradition in this country of the role of the combat artist, I guess from the Revolutionary War up through World War II. Winslow Homer, of course, the famous American artist, drew pictures during the Civil War. Did you see yourself in that tradition?
Mr. MUMFORD: Yes. Actually, Winslow Homer was somebody whose work inspired me a lot. I live in New York City, and the Metropolitan Museum has a lot of his paintings that he did after the Civil War. Of course, back then, photography was still, you know, in its infancy, so it took so long to make an exposure that it wasn't very useful for combat depiction. So magazines--in this case, Harper's Magazine, sent Winslow Homer to the front to send back drawings and engravings.
CONAN: Essentially, you sent yourself to Iraq, though.
Mr. MUMFORD: That's what happened. I had been working on a series of kind of dramatic realistic narratives in my studio for probably, you know, the past 10 years or so, and I've always been interested in this sort of genre of combat art, and it didn't really occur to me until the invasion was really under way that I, you know, could try to sign up, could try to get myself embedded as a combat artist. It was too late at that point. So I basically just bought myself a ticket to Kuwait City in the hopes that I could get a ride into Baghdad with some other reporters.
CONAN: Which is what happened. And it's interesting, there's a lot of interesting stuff in the process of executing your craft, but I was interested in--you said that the art--the act of drawing slowed down the war, recording the spaces in between the bombs.
Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. You know, a lot of people ask me, `Why drawing instead of photography?' and sometimes, I feel a little stumped by that question. I don't really have an easy answer, but in a way, the easiest answer is simply that I'm an artist and drawing is what I do. You know, I took a lot of photographs on the various trips that I took to Iraq, and most of them are not very good photographs. So I can get better results with a drawing than I could from a photograph. But beyond that, I think that drawing has certain characteristics, which are obviously different from taking a photograph. One of them is that it takes a while to make a drawing, so, you know, for example, I spent a lot of time drawing in Baghdad, and I would just wander around the city. You know, after a few weeks, I kind of developed my favorite places to go, and very often, teahouses, for example, because people stay still for a while in them.
CONAN: But let me ask you in particular...
Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah.
CONAN: ...about one of your drawings. It's of a teahouse on Rasheed Street. It's Plate 39 in your book, if you have to remind yourself. `The customers warmed up to me and started talking after I began to draw.' A wonderful picture of these men drinking their tea in the shop in Baghdad.
Mr. MUMFORD: Thanks. Yeah. I remember that picture well. It was, you know, kind of a working class teahouse. In Baghdad, of course, teahouses kind of fulfill the function of bars, because it's not really what you call a drinking city. And the sense that I got when I walked into this particular one was, like, a lot of guys who were out of work that were kind of angry, and so, you know, I sat down in this very smoky atmosphere and ordered a tea and just pulled out my sketchpad. And, of course, the minute I started to draw, people, you know, really--people noticed it. First of all, it was weird being a Westerner in there, but secondly, I began to draw, and the interesting thing about Baghdad is a lot of people respect the notion of being an artist. So a lot of times when I'd introduce myself as a rassam, which is the Arabic for `painter,' they'd say, `Oh, good, good.' So that even, you know, kind of working class people in Baghdad right away had this sort of interest and respect in being an artist.
So I always found that when I was sitting in one place for a while, you know, people would come on over and take a look and they'd be a lot less worried about it than if I'd taken a photograph, because they could see exactly what I was doing. There wouldn't be this sort of worry that maybe I was from the CIA and, you know, I was getting some sort of information about them. A drawing is sort of, at once, more personal in terms of looking at them, but also more personal about me. It's more subjective. So, you know, it has sort of a universal appeal for people.
CONAN: Many of your drawings are also of primarily US forces at work, at rest, at play.
Mr. MUMFORD: Right.
CONAN: You got a chance to go on a lot of missions that, well, today would be quite dangerous.
Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. Well, they were dangerous then, too. I mean, I went to Iraq four times, and the last trip, I got back in October 2004. So, you know, Baghdad began to feel like a much less friendly place essentially after March when Nicholas Berg had his head cut off. But, yeah, altogether, I'd say I spent maybe two-thirds of my time with military units, both National Guard and US Army, and a lot of it in Baghdad, a lot of it in the Sunni triangle area.
CONAN: How has your work been received? I know that there's been, before this book came out, exhibitions and it's been on ABC TV and featured in newspaper articles.
Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. It's been a mix, actually, Neal. You know, I think that the New York art world is sort of reflexively very leftist in its politics. And in some ways, I am, too, but I think that politics had nothing to do with my interest in going to Iraq and making drawings about the war. And overall, I felt fairly impressed with the way the US Army or at least the units that I was with in the US Army behaved themselves. And, you know, I often identified with the younger officers and enlisted guys and felt like I didn't know if I could necessarily do a better job myself if I was in their shoes. So I felt very sympathetic towards the job the US military was trying to do as something that's completely separate from the foreign policy that sent them there.
And I think the art world sometimes has a hard time making that distinction, you know. And for a lot of people, when they hear the stories about Abu Ghraib, they kind of imagine that Abu Ghraib is what it's like every day, all the time, as far as the US military in Iraq is concerned, and that simply is not the case at all. But to return to your question, I think that the country as a whole is perhaps a little bit more--you know, has a more balanced view of the war, even though obviously, we're in an incredibly difficult position. But a lot of people, I think, are open-minded. And myself, when I was there, I found myself going back and forth between sometimes feeling kind of hopeful that things can get better and sometimes feeling quite pessimistic. But it was rare that I had an absolutely black-and-white sense, you know, of how things were going in Iraq.
CONAN: You mentioned in the book that some people questioned why you don't show more suffering of Iraqis.
Mr. MUMFORD: That's right. Well, I mean, the simple answer is that I didn't really see all that much suffering of Iraqis, which sounds kind of strange on its face. The thing is that, you know, I mean, I spent just about 11 months there, so I spent a lot of time there, and as I said, a lot of it in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. And yet, Baghdad's a large city, so, you know, a bomb can go off somewhere and you can be completely unaware of it, or you might hear it in the distance, but, you know, statistically, the chances are you're likely not to be exactly where it blows up.
And meanwhile, you know, life goes on. The marketplaces go on. Kids go to school. The soldiers are out on patrol or trying to do reconstruction projects or meeting with some imam or something. So, you know, there's this sense of sort of quasi-normalcy or at least people trying to create a normal life for themselves. Now unlike a reporter, when a bomb went off, I didn't have sort of fixtures where I felt like I was obligated to go racing off to that bomb scene and make a drawing of the body parts lying around. My attitude was more--I would simply sort of go with the flow, in a way. I would go out on whatever missions were going out when I was with the military or I would wander around Baghdad or hang out with my Iraqi friends and draw whatever it was that looked interesting to me at the time.
CONAN: And the product of all of that is called "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq." Steve Mumford, good luck with it. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. MUMFORD: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks.
CONAN: And if you would like to get some images of Mumford's work from "Baghdad Journal," you can visit our Web site at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the Boston Phoenix!
Updated September 22, 2005
The art of war
Boston native Steve Mumford draws out the real Iraq
BY MIKE MILIARD
Steve Mumford filed weekly dispatches to this online magazine during his stays in Iraq.
More images from Baghdad Journal on Mumford’s online portfolio.
Drawn & Quarterly
The Montreal graphic-novel imprint that published Baghdad Journal.
Soldiers trundle in a Humvee down a dusty city street. Prisoners sit silently, handcuffed and in hoods. Civilians throng noisy public bazaars. In the two and a half years we’ve been in Iraq, images like these have almost become clichés.
But Steve Mumford sees things differently. Over the course of four visits, the Boston-born artist spent nearly a year in and around the Sunni Triangle with an ink bottle and paint set, accompanying US troops on perilous missions and ingratiating himself with restive locals. The subtly breathing watercolors and loose, expressive pen drawings he did there, collected in his new book, Baghdad Journal (Drawn & Quarterly, $35), offer a fresh perspective on the American occupation — and mark a powerful reaffirmation of the combat artist, a central figure of pre-Vietnam battles.
Organic, thoughtful, and carefully rendered, the works convey a complexity and richness of feeling that video uplinks and digital photos simply can’t. Mumford — who will speak at the Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, September 28 — talked to the Phoenix from his New York City studio about what he saw in Iraq and what made him want to paint it.
We live in a digital age, where images can reach our TVs and computers in seconds. Why paintings and drawings?
Photojournalism is naturally suited for something like a war zone, more than drawing is because it captures the instantaneous aspect of it. But what makes drawing interesting is exactly what photography doesn’t have, which is this length. You spend a long time making things, it can take an hour or more sometimes. It was like I was having a longer dialogue. It allowed me to really absorb the details of a particular scene in a way that photography can’t. Our eyes glaze over. We’ve seen so many photographs of so many soldiers in Iraq, and we don’t really notice the details. In a drawing, you can get this kind of deeper sense of mood and atmosphere.
You went to Iraq on your own, then joined up with an Army division once you arrived.
By the time I decided to go, the invasion was underway, so it was too late to get embedded. I crossed into Iraq on, I believe, April 15, 2003. I was walking around Baghdad the first day I got there, and I just stumbled on a team from this particular Task Force 27 [of the 3rd Infantry Division] and they told me where the headquarters were. So I just took a cab out there. Things were pretty informal at that point. Baghdad had just fallen. I met the commander right at the gate, and he asked me if I wanted to join them.
Did you go through any frightening experiences?
I was in a few hairy situations. I try to emphasize that, considering I was there for 10 and a half months, it’s amazing how few hairy situations I was in. But there was a large battle in Baquba. I was in a neighborhood called Khark, in Baghdad, with the First Cavalry division. And every time we went into the neighborhood there were either snipers firing at us, or people throwing hand grenades. But a large part of my experience in Iraq was relatively peaceful.
Did you sketch in the moment, or from photographs later?
If bullets were literally flying, I’d just be taking photographs and trying to stay as low as possible. On the other hand, if there was a lull in the fighting, I could pull out my sketch pad and just start drawing. When I was embedded with the American units, I was always trying to get on as many patrols as possible. I would try to arrange it that every day I would go out on whatever missions were going out. I brought along a small camera, and I would take a few photographs in case we had to leave, so I could finish up later.
In the book, you talk about the connection you felt with Iraqi civilians. How so?
I would tell people in Arabic, " I am a painter. " And something that always tickled me was that people really liked that. Most Iraqis have some notion of what it is to be a painter, and they feel it’s a good thing. When I would start drawing, that would explain everything. It was clear I wasn’t from the CIA, that I wasn’t up to something nefarious. I think they just found it interesting to cluster around and watch me draw.
Were any of them offended? Doesn’t Islam prohibit the representation of the human form?
It depends. For example, Iran is an Islamic country, but there’s a huge film industry there. The Wahabbist tradition is one of the most staunch. But there are various Iraqi artists who will interpret it in different ways. Some will not do the figure at all. In fact, abstraction is the main form of fine art in Baghdad. Others will sculpt the human body, but leave the face out. I knew a guy who runs a gallery in Baghdad and he created a show on Abu Ghraib. He would do a nude, but then put the American-style hood over her head. There are all kinds of interesting aspects to this problem. Iraq, at least over the last 100 years, has tended to be a lot more secular than the states around it. They had a tradition of modernism in painting. And that could include, say, representational surrealism.
Did you seek to show the occupation as it was, or were you trying to comment one way or another on the war?
Oh no, absolutely not. When I got there I saw some very clear benefits of the invasion, as well as some continuing mistakes. But no. The drawings in no way were about the rightness or the wrongness of the war. It’s just not a topic that interests me artistically. The drawings are about the individuals I happen to be drawing.
Will you go back?
No. I felt when I left the last time that I’d gotten everything I wanted to get artistically, and that if I continued to go back it would be because of the thrill of going to a war zone. Whether they admit it or not, every civilian that’s there is there because they want to be. They seem to sort of need that adrenaline rush. It’s intense, there’s no doubt about it. But obviously the more times you go back, the more risks you take.
Steve Mumford talks about Baghdad Journal at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave in Cambridge, on Wednesday, September 28. Mike Miliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue Date: September 23 - 28, 2005
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL reviewed in NY POST
Updated September 19, 2005
BAGHDAD JOURNAL: AN ARTIST IN OCCUPIED IRAQ
By Steve Mumford
September 18, 2005
(Drawn & Quarterly, $34.95)
For Mumford's astonishing book, the artist and writer went to Iraq and did something revolutionary: He drew what he saw. Mostly, he saw signs of life - people working, eating, drinking, shopping in open-air markets - ordinary people trying to get on with their lives in the middle of ungodly chaos. But the images aren't all pastoral and Mumford doesn't try to hide the darker side of America's occupation. Death - and fear of it - is never far from his images. He shows us an Iraqi man watching bodies being unearthed, women and children waiting nervously as their homes are being searched and American soldiers, understandingly on edge, going about their jobs. This is an impressive visual document that deserves a place in the annals of war reportage.
- Joe Tirella
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SF Chronicle Reviews BAGHDAD JOURNAL by STEVE MUMFORD
Updated September 19, 2005
Artist Steve Mumford went to Iraq armed with pen and paint
Reviewed by Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic
Sunday, September 18, 2005
An Artist in Occupied Iraq
By Steve Mumford
DRAWN & QUARTERLY; 224 PAGES; $34.95
Ace illustrator Steve Mumford set off for Baghdad in May 2003, intent on joining a nearly forgotten line of war artists that stretches back to Winslow Homer.
On four visits to Iraq since the U.S. invasion, Mumford wrote down his observations, portrayed them, and has now collected them in "Baghdad Journal," a unique contribution to the mushrooming literature on the occupation.
A public that has begun to distrust the camera may view hand-made images of a war zone with even greater suspicion. But Mumford reflects on the modes and value of witness as part of his project. "If photojournalism captures a decisive moment," he writes, "drawing is more about lingering with a place and editing the scene in a wholly subjective way. ... But neither the Iraqis nor the GIs seemed to have much difficulty in understanding why I was there. Both took it as self-evident that they were part of an important and dramatic story; why wouldn't an artist be interested? ... I didn't see a lot of combat. [Though he recounts plenty of hair-raising experiences.] I didn't see many bodies. I wasn't in Fallujah or Najaf during those bloody battles. But I believe I captured some of the reality of Iraq for many soldiers who were there when I was and for the Iraqis I got to know." Even a casual browser through his book will believe it, too.
Traditional skill and topical content meet in Mumford's work as they do almost nowhere else in contemporary art. As a graphic artist, Mumford has a full bag of tricks. He knows how to give an elaborate image immediacy even if he based it on a snapshot or the most cursory sketch. He permits himself explanatory captions, but keeps them as spare as possible.
At its best, Mumford's writing almost matches the vividness of his drawing. Here he describes the old, narrow streets off the wide Baghdad avenue known as Rashid Street:
"At midday these streets are thronged with people who dodge the wooden carts, which are filled with goods and pushed by boys hollering at the top of their lungs. Half the doors open to small businesses where men huddle over drawers stuffed with Toyota parts or plumbing fixtures, sipping tea. Foul water trickles down the middle of the streets, so men quickly lift the bottoms of their desh-daashes as they pass from one side to another; cats scatter to avoid the inevitable kick from passersby." He can dash off verbal portraits with great verve as well. A certain Sergeant English "is a burly man with a crushing handshake. A cop back in the States, he has the aggressive yet affable manner of someone comfortable with stressful situations. ... On patrol he shakes Iraqis' hands like a mayoral candidate."
Mumford's lack of an agenda lends his book an improbable force. Though embedded with one military unit or another much of the time, he also wandered the streets and hung out at tea houses, where his drawing, when it didn't stir suspicion or hostility, aroused curiosity and provided an excuse for interaction.
One chapter even introduces us to the Baghdad art community, where abstract painting, of all things, flourishes.
"It gets pointed out here a lot that abstraction was a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect," Mumford writes. "Everyone expects art to change with the passing of Saddam's regime, and at this point, no one I've talked to is making any predictions about future trends in Iraqi art. I've seen no video art and practically no photography in Baghdad. Installation art is unknown. Indeed few artists in Iraq have heard of Andy Warhol. Now that communication with the rest of the world is starting to open up, Iraqi artists will discover just how large an ocean they're swimming in."
Beyond the dangers inherent in working in a war zone, Mumford risked a self-exposure that few artists experience in gathering his jottings and pictures into a book. "Baghdad Journal" amounts to an inadvertent self-portrait through Mumford's choices of what to picture, which people to characterize, which feelings to acknowledge.
"Baghdad Journal" evokes a sensible, humane, evenhanded personality, a sort of self-invented Virgil to guide us through the inferno that occupied Iraq has become in the American popular mind, if not in reality.
E-mail Kenneth Baker at email@example.com.
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BAGHDAD JOURNAL by Steve Mumford reviewed in Utne
Updated September 15, 2005
The Art of War
Steve Mumford's Baghdad journal
—By Anjula Razdan, Utne magazine
September / October 2005 Issue
A tea seller in Baghdad rinsing out a cup. A pair of Iraqi men engrossed in a game of backgammon. A young American soldier taking a nap, the wall behind him awash in pin-ups. These are some of the heartbreakingly prosaic images that make up New York City-based painter Steve Mumford's new book, Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (Drawn & Quarterly), which documents, via vivid watercolors and diary entries, the four trips Mumford made to Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Inspired by Winslow Homer, who got his start when Harper's Weekly sent him to cover the Civil War as an illustrator, Mumford set out (on his own dime) to chronicle everyday life in occupied Iraq for both the Iraqi civilians and the American soldiers.
"I came to draw, but it wasn't a prerequisite that I draw the war with a capital W," Mumford said in a phone interview. "I could simply be drawing whatever was going on with the assumption that Iraq is a war zone but that life goes on in a war zone."
For the most part, Mumford would sit -- in a teahouse, at an army base, at an open-air market -- and sketch the drawing on the spot. Iraqis seemed suspicious of him at first, Mumford says, but the moment he pulled out his sketchpad and started drawing, the distrust melted away.
"There are art schools in Iraq, and even working-class Iraqis understand what it means to be a painter. The word for painter is rassam, and even the guy selling cigarettes would say, 'Ah, rassam, good, good,'" Mumford said. "In a weird way, there's more of an innate respect for an artist in Iraq than there is in the United States."
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STEVE MUMFORD'S BAGHDAD JOURNAL in the New York Times
Updated September 13, 2005
40 Years Later, America Is Studying War Once More
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: September 11, 2005
Americans, heavy sleepers that they are, are waking up to the news that 2005 is looking a lot like 1965. The art world has been snoozing along with everyone else, which is not to say the 1960's haven't been on its mind. Far-out little objects abound, the equivalents of macramé and tie-dye but with a noncountercultural art school pedigree. That flower power grew from toxic fields in Vietnam hasn't had much mention. That was 40 years ago. Ancient history. Bad dream.
But there's a faint glow of historical consciousness-raising on the horizon. That is surely the description for "Persistent Vestiges: Drawings From the American-Vietnam War," which opens at the Drawing Center in SoHo on Nov. 5. The show will focus on a pair of America's major political artists, Nancy Spero (born in 1926) and Martha Rosler (born in 1945). Both produced sustained, scathing but very different visual responses to the Vietnam War, and that work appears in depth here.
They will be joined by six North Vietnamese artists who made documentary drawings on the front lines during the war. And a younger artist with an international reputation, Dinh Q. Le, brings the show into the present. Born in South Vietnam in 1968, he came to the United States in 1978 and now lives and works in a tourist-friendly Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Mr. Le will also have a solo show at the Asia Society in Manhattan, opening on Tuesday. He is best known for the pictures collectively titled "From Vietnam to Hollywood" (2000) and installations in which he considers how the war he experienced as a child continues to blight the present, specifically pointing to the birth defects that some studies suggest resulted from the wartime use of Agent Orange.
The impact of that war is graphically detailed in pictures by the veteran Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths in a career survey at Denise Bibro Fine Art Gallery in Chelsea through Oct. 1. For half a century, Mr. Griffith has been placing himself squarely in harm's way for the express purpose, it would seem, of stripping military violence of any trace of sugarcoating that politicians apply to it. His photographic account of a lacerating war that simultaneously devastated Southeast Asia and deeply divided the United States amounts to one of the great tragic portraits of its time and is required viewing in ours.
Which brings us to the current war. At least a few younger artists are paying attention to it, among them the New York-based painter Steve Mumford, who made four trips to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as an embedded artist with American troops. There he recorded what he saw in a steady stream of watercolors, which he posted on the Internet as "Baghdad Journal."
A show of Mr. Mumford's paintings makes its debut at the Meadows Museum of Fine Arts in Dallas starting Oct. 6. (A handful of them were also included in "Greater New York 2005.") Technically, I guess, they are reportage. But they might also be regarded as examples of history painting. That venerable genre was overtaken by photography more than a century ago, but, expansively redefined, it is still being practiced by some of the best artists we have. It is an art of actuality and imagination, of witness and disbelief. It's a morning art, an art for a wide-awake year.
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Newsweek on Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL
Updated September 12, 2005
Sept. 19, 2005 issue
Books: The War in Watercolor
Steve Mumford was hidden behind a wall in Baghdad when the sniper began shooting. But the New York City artist didn't draw a weapon: he drew a picture. "That's one of my favorite paintings," he says. "The bullets were flying, but as I continued to draw, the sniping gradually died down. And then a group of Iraqi boys came out and watched me work." His picture depicts a bullet-ridden street lined with armed American soldiers and a lone Iraqi woman, head covered, making her way home.
That's just one drawing in "Baghdad Journal: An Artist In Occupied Iraq," an arresting new book that showcases dozens of Mumford's paintings, mostly watercolors, alongside snippets from the journal he kept during the 10 months in 2003 and '04 he spent documenting the war in Iraq. On first look, the understated pictures—a soldier on guard duty, a line of handcuffed Iraqi suspects, a woman and her son waiting as their house is searched—don't stand out from the photographs that come out of Iraq each day. But the fact that they're paintings seems to give them emotional weight; they feel intimate, personal—yet surprisingly apolitical. "When I'd read reporters' accounts of the war, they always seem to have this simplistic message of 'thumbs up or thumbs down.' I kept thinking I would develop some overarching view," Mumford says. But Mumford, who went into Iraq opposed to America's decision to go to war, found that his position softened somewhat as he painted his subjects, who represented a spectrum of attitudes. By the time he left, he no longer saw Iraq in black or white—and his work is all the more colorful because of it.
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Baghdad Journal: Starred Review
Updated July 27, 2005
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq
Mumford, Steve (Author)
Drawn & Quarterly
Hardcover, $34.95 (224p)
Art | Art & Politics; Art | Collections, Catalogs, Exhibitions | Museum; Art | Individual Artist
With countless war accounts already in from Iraq, it's refreshing to get this dispatch told, from the perspective not of a journalist or a photographer, but of an artist. Mumford, a New York City painter, first arrived in Baghdad in April of 2003 and spent about a year there, and in other cities, accompanying U.S. troops on patrols, raids and combat missions. But the most arresting images in this illustrated journal come from his more mundane interactions: with people in cafs, at a meeting with a local imam, at a galley favored by local Baghdad artists. Mumford writes that, for him, "the act of drawing slowed down the war, recording the spaces in between the bombs," and it is through these spaces, the day-to-day of life in a country where life runs minute-to-minute, that Iraq and its war become illuminated in a way that we rarely see. At first glance Mumford's watercolors carry something of the hasty urgency of courtroom art, but this impression is soon belied by the images' depth of feeling and nuance. Accompanying the watercolors are passages from his journal, written in a lucid and reflective style that perfectly matches these quiet spaces pushing out at the surrounding chaos. His is a remarkable document. 6-city author tour. (Sept.)
Steve Mumford Interviewed by Reuters
Updated January 11, 2005
FEATURE-Embedded artist gives another perspective on Iraq war.
By Claudia Parsons
10 January 2005
(c) 2005 Reuters Limited
NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - The world has seen more images from the war in Iraq than of any conflict in history, from film of tanks advancing on Baghdad to digital pictures of prisoner abuse, but artist Steve Mumford is offering something else.
The 44-year-old New Yorker, whose previous works include pictures of wolves in a forest and sharks underwater, seems an unlikely heir to the man he cites as a hero, Winslow Homer who documented the American Civil War for Harper's Weekly.
With no official links to the military, which has its own combat artists, Mumford decided to travel to Iraq independently within days of the U.S.-led invasion.
He reported back only to an arts Web site called artnet.com, writing a "Baghdad journal" about his experiences illustrated by his drawings and paintings that have since been shown in a New York gallery and which go on tour early this year.
Mumford explains his decision as a logical extension of his interest in conflict in nature, which developed into a fascination with the Vietnam war in the year before the Iraq war. "Suddenly it occurred to me I'm interested in war, the story of war. I'm not sure why," Mumford said in an interview.
"I'm also very interested in combat art which has been this genre for a long, long time though it's slowly died since World War Two. So I thought, why don't I just go."
ARTIST AS WITNESS
He borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to buy a flak jacket and helmet, satellite communications gear and other equipment. Mumford, who grew up in Boston, traveled to Iraq via Cairo and Kuwait in April 2003.
"Since I'd never been to a war zone before I thought maybe I'll just freak out when I get to Kuwait City and fly right home," he recalled. Instead, he reached Baghdad and has now made four trips to Iraq, staying several months each time both "embedded" with U.S. troops and living and working independently.
"What really interested me was returning to the idea of the artist as witness, having a first person encounter with an event and describing in very personal and subjective terms what that event is all about," he said in his New York studio.
The earliest installments of the journal include pictures of ordinary life in Baghdad - backgammon players in a teahouse, salesmen on a street corner. Others record the time he spent with the military in Tikrit, Baquba and Ramadi - cities whose names alone conjure up images of violence.
MIXED REACTIONS TO SUBJECTIVE VIEW
"The drawings have attracted a lot of attention though the attention is mixed," Mumford said. "Most artists are pretty strongly politically against the war so there's been criticism that the drawings seem too neutral."
He says he felt no compulsion to be objective since he was an artist rather than a journalist.
"If I was with a military unit and I felt like these guys were doing a good job ... and they were good guys, I tended to identify with them and be supportive of their mission."
"At the same time if I was with Iraqis, especially my Iraqi friends, I would try to reflect that subjectively too."
On his most recent visit from June to October last year, Mumford joined a unit patrolling part of Baghdad.
His journal tells of cramming into Bradley armored vehicles with soldiers, creeping up to a rooftop during a gunbattle to make his daily phone-call to his wife and lying flat behind a U.S. sniper to sketch him as he came under fire.
His art has been on show in New York gallery and will appear in Michigan at the end of January and in Miami in April. A book of 200 to 250 pictures is due out in September.
While military families might seem the obvious buyers of his work, Mumford says the price tag of $1,500 for a fully worked up painting may be too high for many of them.
"These drawings are not only a rare record of the stuff that I did over there, but they're also an important part of me making a living," said Mumford, whose wife is also an artist.
Mumford said he had grown progressively more pessimistic since his first visit because security has deteriorated to the extent that he said Iraq was almost in a state of civil war just weeks before elections at the end of January.
He is still in contact with several Iraqi friends as well as a few U.S. soldiers, but he has no plans to return.
"Being in a war zone is a very high adrenalin experience ... almost like a drug, but I felt every time I got in a Bradley the risk was going up a little bit more," he said.
Steve Mumford Interviewed by Peter Jennings on ABC
Updated January 11, 2005
PERSON OF THE WEEK STEVE MUMFORD
17 December 2004
ABC News: World News Tonight
(c) Copyright 2004, American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS
(OC) Finally this evening, our "Person of the Week." We are very aware in the news business how transitory it is. You may know the phrase, "today's newspaper is what they wrap tomorrow's fish in." In many ways, television is even more fleeting. The man we have chosen this week comes from a great wartime tradition of something more enduring than the daily news.
STEVE MUMFORD, PAINTER
I've been trying to paint or depict scenes that show some sort of dramatic narrative involving human emotions. Probably that's what attracted me to the war. In a sense, war is the ultimate dramatic human narrative, or certainly one of them.
(VO) Until very recently, Steve Mumford was a combat artist in Iraq. He was embedded, just like the reporters and the cameramen, with the 3rd Infantry Division out of Ft. Stewart, Georgia. When Mumford arrived in Baghdad, as a civilian, the city had already fallen to American forces. He spent a couple of days getting his bearings. Then he found the 3rd ID and approached the commander.
I kind of shouted over the noise of the engines of the Bradley what I wanted to do. I told him I was an artist and, and he seemed interested. So he said, yeah, jump on. It was actually fascinating. I mean, we did everything from stopping bank robberies that were in progress to checking on other, other battalions kind of strewn around Baghdad.
(VO) Mumford would paint and sketch whenever the unit stopped moving. When it was too dangerous, he'd snap a quick photograph and paint when it was safe.
When the battle was going on, I stayed below in the armored personnel carrier and passed up ammunition. And I took some photographs by holding the camera up, just above the lip of the carrier and photographed what I could. But basically, it was incredibly loud and quite scary.
(VO) As any artist will tell you, there is nothing like a sketchpad to attract the curious. In Mumford's case it has been a way to meet Iraqis.
Well, I would have a small crowd of Iraqis around me, every time I would start to draw. So there was kind of an interaction between me and the people of Baghdad. Which was a lot of fun and which also led to another drawing. Usually somebody would see me and invite me over to have tea with him. And I would wind up getting about six good drawings out of a, out of a good day like that.
(VO) A tea house. Playing dominoes. An afternoon nap. Just waiting. A memorial service for a fallen soldier.
Most people in the room were crying, eventually, including me. This is a fun one. This was the Miller Light Catfight Girls. It was a particularly difficult drawing to do because there were so many soldiers milling around.
(VO) Steve Mumford is part of a great tradition. Every country that has gone to war has had its combat artists. The British, the Russians, the French, the Canadians. Mumford was influenced by Winslow Homer, who became famous during the Civil War. During World War I and World War II, there were many, many artists. Today you can see their work in any number of museums and galleries. But gradually, as a category of artists, they were largely replaced by combat photographers.
Partly what I would like to do is help revive an interest in that. Because I think that art can bring a great deal that photography can't.
(VO) After ten and a half months in-country, Steve Mumford, who's originally from Boston and has been drawing since he was a child, felt it was time to go home.
The security situation in Baghdad was deteriorating. It was harder and harder to leave the hotel. I felt increasingly like I was being watched.
(VO) Today, at home in New York City, he is finishing some of the work he started there. In every way, he says, it was an extraordinary experience.
I didn't know what I was going to find when I got to Iraq, but I certainly found a lot of, a lot of subject matter that I think I'm going to be chewing over for years to come.
(VO) And so we choose Steve Mumford, who helps us see a difficult war from yet another perspective.
(OC) Someone asked what motivated him to go to Iraq. About a year ago, he was working on a Vietnam painting from a photograph. He was too young for Vietnam. And he suddenly thought, so he says, why do this when I can paint the real thing? He kept a journal when he was in Iraq. And his writing and his painting can be seen at artnet.com.
(OC) That's our report on "World News Tonight." We hope you have a good weekend. I'm Peter Jennings. Good night.
NY Times Features Steve Mumford's BAGHDAD JOURNAL
Updated January 11, 2005
December 13, 2004
Sketches From the Front: An Artist's Dispatches, Rendered in Ink and Paint
By CAROL KINO
hough contemporary American art often flirts with politics, it is not usually noted for its head-on engagement with war. Yet some of the most compelling commentary on Iraq has come from a New York painter, Steve Mumford, who has been embedded with military units in hot spots like Baquba, Tikrit and Baghdad on and off since April 2003.
Mr. Mumford has posted frequent dispatches on the Web magazine Artnet. Each is accompanied by drawings and paintings - many made on the spot - illustrating people and places in the story. Titled "Baghdad Journal," the project strikes a somewhat incongruous note amid the magazine's usual fare of reviews, gossip and party pictures.
The 16th and final entry, to be posted this week, chronicles the attempts of the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division to quell insurgents in Baghdad in late October, toward the end of Mr. Mumford's last visit. He opens with a description of the city and the military blimp that hovers above it, gathering intelligence.
"I often imagined the view from up there," he writes, "especially on one afternoon in mid-October when I found myself running across Talaa Square with Third Platoon just after a young soldier had been killed by a sniper."
The dispatch ends with the memorial service for Sgt. Jack Hennessy of the First Battalion, Ninth Cavalry, killed by friendly fire from an Iraqi National Guard unit. As a first sergeant in the battalion calls out the dead soldier's name a third and final time, the company falls silent. "In the quiet that follows I find my own tears falling onto my drawing pad," Mr. Mumford writes. The accompanying drawing, a modest sketch made with sepia ink, shows a soldier saluting before Sergeant Hennessy's helmet, rifle and boots.
Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas - wilderness and society - against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. The work was technically impressive but creatively confused. Like many contemporary artists, Mr. Mumford seemed fascinated by 19th-century American art but stymied by the task of making it new.
Yet in the end, that art helped set him free. Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper's Weekly.
Mr. Mumford was already working on a Vietnam series when the war in Iraq began. By that time, the subject of war had become "an all-consuming interest," he said. "It sort of hit me: why don't I go over there?"
He called around to military bases in an attempt to have himself embedded, but his efforts were fruitless. Nor did he get far with magazines and newspapers: the only taker was Artnet, which gave him a press pass. Eventually, Mr. Mumford said, "I realized the only way to do it was to buy a ticket." (He financed the project with sales of his own work and with a little help from his wife, the painter Inka Essenhigh.)
Mr. Mumford made his first trip in April 2003. After arriving in Kuwait, he hitched a ride to Baghdad with a French reporter. He soon happened across an approachable army unit patrolling the banking district. He hit it off with the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter (now retired and a military analyst for Fox News), and within minutes, Mr. Mumford found himself embedded.
After this visit, he returned to Iraq three times, spending 10 and a half months there in total, much of it in Baghdad. Like an embedded journalist he outfitted himself with special protective gear - flak jacket, helmet, goggles and earplugs - when accompanying soldiers on patrols. He also carried brushes, ink, watercolors and drawing pads along with his notebook.
Like Winslow Homer before him, Mr. Mumford spent most of his time at military bases, chronicling the routine, monotony and constant togetherness of soldiers' daily lives. Often they are seen dozing on cots, doing paperwork, watching television or playing cards. But he also shows them standing guard, attending neighborhood council meetings, searching homes and hunched inside tanks, tensely watching the road.
Though he had not had much contact with the military before, Mr. Mumford said, he came away with strongly favorable feelings. "Most of the soldiers are really trying to do the right thing." he said. "I wanted to do them justice because I was really impressed."
On his last three visits, he also spent time exploring Baghdad, making drawings of the people he encountered. He said he had felt relatively safe until his last trip, when he began to sense he was being watched. For the most part, the people he met seemed to have regarded him as a curiosity. "Iraqis are so sweet and so forgiving," he said, "that even though they may resent the U.S. Army being there, most of them are sort of tickled to see an American."
Mr. Mumford also became friends with several Iraqi artists, who aided his deeper exploration of the city. In one dispatch, he discusses contemporary Iraqi art. During Saddam Hussein's time, he writes, the prevailing trend was abstraction, "a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect."
With such broad scope, "Baghdad Journal" differs from most journalistic endeavors. The writing, full of anecdotes and visual details, reads nothing like a news article. Nor does it resemble a blog. Though he took working photographs and made sketches and notes on the spot, Mr. Mumford often fleshed out his writing and drawings later, sometimes waiting until he had returned to New York to finish and file dispatches. And then, of course, there is the project's raison d'être: the paintings themselves, all elegantly composed and coolly direct, yet strikingly different from one another in both subject matter and technique. Some were obviously made quickly, with ink and watercolor on paper. Others are more complex, fully worked in gouache, watercolor and oil. These Mr. Mumford painted later, working from snapshots - an approach he believes is similar to that of Homer, who seems to have used his own sketches to compose elaborate engravings of large-scale battle scenes. (Mr. Mumford plans to make his own large-scale oils in future.)
The very act of drawing often led to deeper engagement, with soldiers and civilians alike. "Because I would be sitting there drawing for so long," Mr. Mumford said, "everyone around me could see what I was doing, so there was none of the fear of the photograph. A lot of the time Iraqis who might not like their photograph taken would be happy to have me make a drawing, and this would lead to conversation."
Seen on their own without much writing, as they were in Mr. Mumford's solo show last fall at the Postmasters gallery in Chelsea, the drawings perplexed some critics because the Iraq depicted seems relatively tranquil. But after pointing out that he wasn't in Falluja, Mr. Mumford counters that this was the Iraq he found. Though the situation deteriorated over the course of his visits and anti-Americanism increased, he said that "90 percent of the time I was there it was a relatively peaceful situation, where people were trying to make the best of a difficult place."
Within the art world, which tends to operate under its own rules of engagement, there has also been unease about the illustrative aspect of the work, and for some it lacks the expected political edge. "I think it's difficult for them to look at what I'm doing because I don't take an antiwar position," Mr. Mumford said. (A selection of his drawings is on view at White Columns in the West Village, through Jan. 30.)
His own position changed over the course of his travels. He initially went to Iraq convinced that the war was a huge blunder, and now he is on the fence about whether the occupation can succeed. As he put it, "The Bush government made some really insane mistakes." Yet he began to understand the invasion differently after hearing firsthand about life under Mr. Hussein. "My consciousness was raised by the Iraqis themselves," he said.
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