Steve Mumford has traveled to Baghdad embedded with a press-pass from Artnet.com four times now, the first time just as Baghdad was falling. His sketches and later paintings made from his trips have been an ongoing feature on Artnet since August 2003 - although at the lecture Steve said he probably won't be going back. His stated original purpose for going was a desire to see and record firsthand what was happening, and now that he has done that more than once he's realized that further trips made would be for the adrenaline high - not enough of a reason to keep going back.
Most of Mumford's Baghdad Journal paintings are made from drawings, sketches, and photos he creates on the scene. It is also not unusual for him to photoshop different images to arrive at a satisfactory composition. Mumford says he "is not a natural performer" and prefers to work privately in the studio. On drawing amongst a crowd with people pointing and tsk-tsking - "if you could get used to it it would really be great because there is all this interaction". Iraqis would usually be understandably suspicious and guarded if questioned or photographed by an American, but Mumford found that once he pulled out a sketchbook and started drawing people quickly warmed up.
Mumford has befriended a number of Iraqi artists on his visits and some of my favorite works are paintings of those artists working in their studios and portraits. Mumford's opinion is that the Iraqi artists he knew "didn't seem to be aware of how bad Saddam was because of U.S. conspiracy theories" and he spoke of one Iraqi artist tolerating the U.S. occupation not because of a belief in U.S. benevolence but because U.S. interests are coinciding with his own interests.
One of Mumford's paintings pictures a group of people gathered around an outdoor televison set on a cart and Mumford explained that one finds these hot-dog stand cum video stalls throughout the city, usually showing videos of people being tortured or killed. I'm not sure if these are mostly old looted videos made during Saddam's reign or products of the insurgency. Mumford described one instance of a large group of men transfixed before a video that had been made at one of Uday Hussein's parties. He explained that these Iraqi men were amazed by the dancing, as they hadn't been allowed to dance and most of them had never seen a group of people dancing before (this was a surprise to me). This painting is one of those in which the composition was photoshopped, he didn't feel very welcome or comfortable in these situations.
He's made few paintings of women because they didn't like to be drawn and definitely don't like to be photographed (at least by American strangers) - the person seated on the left in this painting is a young Iraqi woman acting as a translator and an example of many smart ambitious young Iraqi women working with US soldiers in the hopes of bettering their own situations. Mumford spoke of accompanying soldiers on raids of private homes and how the children would get all excited and trail soldiers throughout the raid because the soldiers would open every cupboard. Traditionally in Iraq every home has a cupboard which children are not allowed to open, and so they are thrilled at the chance to see whatever things their parents want to keep hidden from them.
Mumford originally compared his Baghdad Journal work to Winslow Homer's Civil war paintings, but says lately he has come around to relating a little more to WWII combat art. He makes no claims of objectivity and says that while with the soldiers he identified with them and supported their mission; he also identified with the Iraqi artists he met. He has been the target of a lot of art world criticism and much of this work could be understood as propagandistic but it is also a viewpoint little expressed in contemporary art.
For a much tougher critical look at Steve Mumford please see this post by Tom Moody.
P.S. This soldier is writing a book on post-modernism!
P.P.S. Here is the artnet Baghdad Journal entry in which Steve Mumford introduces some artists of Baghdad.