“An Artist in Occupied Iraq” / SF Chronicle / Kenneth Baker / September 18, 2005

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.

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