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.'