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The Iraq war in watercolour: Interview with Steve Mumford

The artist has visited Iraq five times, and has no qualms about placing himself in the line of fire to document the conflict

Steve Mumford first travelled to Iraq in 2003 and has since returned four times to chronicle the war with ink drawings and watercolours. Following US troops, the New York-based artist has recorded events in the battlefield and daily life in the streets and marketplaces of Baghdad. His most recent series, depicting injured US soldiers at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, is currently on view at the School of Visual Arts in New York, in the group show “Testimony to War: Art from the Battlegrounds of Iraq” (until 8 March). We spoke to him about his experiences in the country.

The Art Newspaper: What was working in Iraq like?

SM: The biggest obstacle was figuring out the mechanics of drawing while out on patrol. The other difficulty was drawing alone while walking in Baghdad. I knew it could be dangerous. I would attract a lot of attention.

TAN: How would you choose your subjects?

SM: Usually I would pick a neighbourhood that interested me. One is called Karada, it’s known for its appliance stores, so there were always these salesmen selling piles of satellite dishes and electronics on the street. But I was always attracted to the old, exotic parts of the city like the Bab Sherji marketplace, or the old neighbourhood around Rashid Street, which was a warren of little streets. Whenever I would stop, there would be a crowd of Iraqis commenting on what I was drawing. People seemed to enjoy it and would participate with a running commentary in Arabic, or even offer to pose for me.

TAN: What were your most frightening moments?

SM: Witnessing combat. Roadside bombs; I had a few of those go off near me. On and off fighting. If you have a sniper shooting at you, you don’t know where they’re firing from, so you just run and hope. And when the people around you are shooting, it’s deafening.

On my fourth trip I was invited by a unit to join them in Baquba and they promised a helicopter ride from the green zone in Baghdad. But the helicopter never arrived so I had to organise my own transportation. And the day before I was scheduled to leave, some guy came up to me on the street and said: “I hear you’re going to Baquba tomorrow.” And this was after Nick Berg [US businessman captured and then beheaded] had been killed, so there was this palpable feeling you could be kidnapped. I said: “No, no, that’s not me, must be some other guy.”

It was a very long trip. There were gangs that would kidnap Americans and westerners, and sell them to other gangs; if you were really unlucky you got sold to Al Qaeda.

TAN: Why do you keep returning?

SM: I feel like I’m recording history when I am drawing in Iraq. The war has become my subject matter, I’ll probably deal with it for a long time

TAN: What do you think of other art about the war?

SM: So far most art about the war is more properly termed anti-war art, almost always done by artists who’ve never been to Iraq or Afghanistan. I feel that their work is hopelessly clichéd, little more than a regurgitation of the Vietnam era agitprop we grew up with. The US or British soldiers are depicted as either helpless victims or sadistic criminals. Iraqi civilians are well-meaning and naive, the insurgents are noble freedom-fighters.

These versions of reality are no more sophisticated than Saddam’s propaganda. Most soldiers I spent time with had a great deal of professional pride in their service, and were willing to risk their lives, at least up to a point.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The art of conflict'