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 weíve 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 ó 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 canít. Mumford ó who will speak at the Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, September 28 ó 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 doesnít 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 canít. Our eyes glaze over. Weíve seen so many photographs of so many soldiers in Iraq, and we donít 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, itís 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, Iíd 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 itís a good thing. When I would start drawing, that would explain everything. It was clear I wasnít from the CIA, that I wasnít up to something nefarious. I think they just found it interesting to cluster around and watch me draw.
Were any of them offended? Doesnít Islam prohibit the representation of the human form?
It depends. For example, Iran is an Islamic country, but thereís 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. Itís 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 Iíd 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 thatís there is there because they want to be. They seem to sort of need that adrenaline rush. Itís intense, thereís 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 email@example.com.
Issue Date: September 23 - 28, 2005
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