2 October 2005

The Trouble with Heroes

Symposium on Steve Mumford, Part IV

War is where heroes are made, or so the story goes. In a self-conscious attempt to align his career path with the blazing trajectory of Winslow Homer, Steve Mumford launched his Baghdad Journal project in the summer of 2003. Sponsored by Artnet’s magazine feature, Baghdad Journal consists of sixteen dated and illustrated entries, records of Mumford’s travels in Iraq between August 2003 and December 2004. Each entry contains Mumford’s diary-style writing, illustrated by twenty or so scanned reproductions of his watercolors. Mumford’s scenes are deliberately chosen to challenge our expectations of war—the boundaries of the battleground are unclear, and there is little overt representation of violence. Instead, Mumford depicts the everyday reality of 21st-century war: the tedium of soldiers passing time at base, the efforts of ordinary Iraqis to continue the routines of urban life. But although Mumford’s project may seem anti-heroic, the idea of the lone male hero remains remarkably persistent throughout his sketches and writings, revealing how difficult it is to separate the age-old myth of the hero from an attempt to represent the realities of war.

As a painter, rather than a cameraman, Mumford attracted the attention of Baghdadi artists, and some of the most engaging entries in his journal concern his efforts to get to know them. The repression of Baghdad’s art scene is not the main focus of Mumford’s website, however, which seems mainly concerned with providing an aesthetically refined alternative to CNN. The result is a digital reportage of the war, part blog and part online exhibition gallery, that deliberately hearkens back to Homer’s representation of American soldiers during the Civil War. Mumford’s anachronistic use of watercolors to convey news (the only parallel that springs to mind is the court-reportage pastel, a retardataire form of representation which is generally given little thought) is made even more eccentric, or more challenging by the decision to disseminate his work primarily as a blog. The result, like many such websites, is a little too revelatory, more focused on the rambling voice of the author than on the quiet power of the images. The images display in a rather small format on most computer screens. Each can be enlarged with the usual point-and-click, but the eye is faster than the finger, and the result is unfortunately cartoonish as one scrolls down the text-heavy pages.


Most of Mumford’s work depicts ordinary people, whether American military personnel or Iraqi civilians, going about their daily tasks. Soldiers are shown at rest, or engaged in quiet, solitary tasks like repairing tanks or painting buildings on the base. Periodically, Mumford accompanies a group of soldiers on a military mission, but even then the action is slow and the sense of violence is dulled by distance or cropping. Iraqi civilians are shown in a more varied range of activities, as they carry on their lives with disaster in the foreground. Mumford frequents the marketplaces and side streets of Baghdad, where he meets and depicts shopkeepers, street sweepers, and artists. This latter category is especially compelling, perhaps because Mumford seems to forge a stronger connection with his fellow artists than with the other soldiers and civilians that he meets, or perhaps because the effects of the war on Baghdadi artists has been largely ignored by the news media and the art press. In any case, Mumford’s decision to break with established format in his entry of November 11, 2003 to highlight the work of contemporary Iraqi artists provides a fascinating glimpse of the range of art production in a city which we too often think of as a war ground rather than the cultural capital that it is or was. Featured work by Abdul Qadar Rasam, Qassim Septi, and Layth Matti hints at the skill and stylistic diversity of contemporary Baghdad artists; their artworks range from surreal militaristic visions to decorative panels with apparently mythological narratives.

Qassim Septi, oil on canvas, 2000, Hewar Gallery

Mumford’s decision to foreground the everyday life of soldiers and civilians rather than the drama and heroics of war is intriguing in the texture of its detail—something that has gone missing from other war coverage—yet it’s also something of a lesson in the contemporary fascination with the everyday. Under the influence of writers like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certau, the valorization of the everyday has become a nearly reflexive contemporary response to cultural conservatism, especially its nauseating emphasis on heroics, whether in art or war.

Yet Mumford’s attempt to be low-key or anti-heroic fails in certain crucial ways. Almost all of Mumford’s subjects are men between the ages of twenty and forty, reinforcing the idea that war is something that happens to virile young men, whether they are shown as fighters or as everyday heroes. Baghdad Journal does contain a few depictions of American women soldiers at work, but despite the fact that Mumford is the almost certainly the first watercolorist permitted access to actively deployed female troops, he makes little of this opportunity to explore the complex gender politics of military work. The near-total absence of Iraqi women is an even more glaring problem. Mumford reinforces two gender problems: the Iraqis’ own silencing of their female population, and the idea of the war reporter or war artist as a wandering lone male soldier, concentrating on the spaces of male action and leisure. Upon noticing this absence, western viewers might at first excuse it, thinking that naturally a Western male reporter artist would have little access to female Muslim subjects. But such viewers need to exercise caution in accepting the naturalness of this exclusion. There are women present in Mumford’s picture, but they linger in the margins, quietly standing by as their houses are searched by American soldiers, or hidden inconspicuously among a group of men looking for prisoners. “Ramadi Women and Children” portrays two mothers looking away from the artist and viewer, while their small sons gaze insistently up and out from the shadowy background.

The women’s traditional dress contrasts with their sons’ westernized clothes. Even the bright patterns of the anonymous women’s clothing forms an unfortunate decorative parallel with the tiled walls which enclose them, heightening the sense that, despite their central location in the picture frame, they are part of the background. Thus, the experience of the Iraqi women is largely supressed by their peripheral placement in Mumford’s narrative. Mumford also largely avoids, perhaps out of a distaste for sentimentality, representing the very old or very young, despite the harsh toll of the war on these two population groups.

Mumford’s choice of subjects reveals how deeply the specter of the heroic haunts the representation of the ordinary; in viewing his work, we have to ask ourselves how far the myth of the hero has penetrated our conceptions both of wartime and the identity of the artist. Baghdad Journal plays, perhaps unwittingly, into another heroic stereotype, that of the lone war reporter—Mumford’s loneliness is palpable as he paints still lifes in empty hotel rooms and wanders the streets of Baghdad in search of companionship. Mumford’s staged identity as a lone male reporter is reinforced by references to communication with his wife (the artist Inka Essenhigh), who remains on the homefront. And the blog format, in which the artist narrates his own wartime experience, unmediated by critical analysis, also plays directly into the traditional concept of the artist as hero, bravely sketching dispatches from the front line. Rather than fostering dialogue about the role of the artists in wartime, Baghdad Journal doubles as a digital one-man show. As a result, Mumford’s innovative blog turns out to be as much a conventional effort to boost the reputation of an individual artist as it is an exploration of alternative means of representing the reality of warfare. In his focus on the everyday, Mumford ultimately foregrounds a smaller kind of traditional hero, but a traditional hero nonetheless. Baghdad Journal highlights the pervasiveness of the hero in everyday life, whether in a distant war or at home on the computer. Clicking rapidly past images of a war abroad, the art-viewer turned internet-surfer will have to remember not to skim too quickly over the biases of domesticated expectations.

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