The Art of War

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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