Embedded war artist presents everyday life in Iraq

by Emily Kaiser

When Steve Mumford was in Iraq in 2004, he wore full military protection and a backpack full of art supplies.

Mumford was an embedded artist with the U.S. Army for 11 months, painting the everyday lives of Iraqis and soldiers, as well as the battles and violence he encountered.

Mumford presented his artwork and talked about his experience Wednesday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

His watercolor paintings and drawings portrayed scenes inside military vehicles, Iraqis shopping in an open-air mall and the horror of civilian death.

Mumford said he was always interested in this type of art, but never did anything similar to this project.

“I knew war and conflict would make interesting art,” he said.

When Mumford first arrived in Baghdad, the city had already fallen to American forces. He found the 3D Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga., and approached the unit’s commander.

Mumford said the commander seemed interested in what he wanted to do and invited him to join the unit.

Mumford said he would sketch while the unit stopped moving or take photographs to use later to complete his pieces.

During battles, Mumford said he would stay below in the armored vehicle and pass the soldiers ammunition.

On the first of his four trips to Iraq, Mumford said he often questioned his reasoning for being there.

“The moral ambiguity was the basis of my initial doubts,” he said. “As a civilian in Iraq, you don’t want to become a war tourist.”

Mumford said Iraqi civilians often congregated around him as he drew and he would have to retreat to the top of the vehicle to avoid crowds.

Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance said he pays close attention to news about Iraq, but the everyday life aspect of Mumford’s work gives him a different view of the war.

“A lot of the news tends to focus on a fairly narrow window: What’s being blown up and what doesn’t work,” Jacobs said. “There is no sense of what everyday life is like, and a big part of what Steve Mumford is doing is providing that context.”

History and anthropology associate professor Tom Wolfe said there is a long history of artists embedded with troops.

“Since the emergence of the idea of a public, there has been an interest in images of war,” he said. “Modern war needs and relies on public support and cooperation.”

Diane Mullin, associate curator at the Weisman Art Museum, said war art has two purposes: to be a historical document and to make a statement about the situation.

“A lot of times both are happening because people choosing to do the art have choices,” she said.

During the presentation, art associate professor Lynn Lukkas said she saw a theme within Mumford’s work of the soldiers as heroic, and she questioned his message.

Mumford said his art is not meant to make a statement about the war, and he does not view himself as pro-war or anti-war.

Art graduate student Gudrun Lock attended the presentation and said Mumford’s work was well-rounded and showed a different view of the war.

“I was happy to see something that was not photography because it allowed me to look beyond the gory and heroic images,” she said.

During his presentation, Mumford said he enjoyed the romantic aspect of war, and it was often portrayed in his paintings because it was how he felt in the moment.

Because of Mumford’s romantic image of war, Gudrun said, she questioned his art’s subjectivity.

“He made an effort to show complex aspects of the war, but he seems to get off on war drama, which could blind him from the more complicated aspects,” she said.