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Testimony to War: Art from the Battlegrounds of Iraq at School of Visual Arts
Lucian Read, View of residents of a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad seen from behind the eight inches of steel and armored glass of a Humvee during a patrol, digital photograph, 2006.

NEW YORK.-The School of Visual Arts (SVA) presents “Testimony to War: Art from the Battlegrounds of Iraq,” an exhibition that brings together the creative output of five emerging and established artists, each of whom has a direct experience of the war in Iraq: Army Major Peter Buotte, Army Sergeant Aaron Hughes, embedded artist Steve Mumford, embedded photographer Lucian Read, and Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Roa. Curated by Francis Di Tommaso, director of the Visual Arts Museum, “Testimony to War” will include examples of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and video representative of the artists’ distinctive bodies of work and of their uniquely personal vantage points of the war. Ranging from the subtly conceptual to the graphically raw, these works drive home the human costs of war as they bring us closer to the street-level reality of Iraq. The exhibition will be on view at the Visual Arts Museum, 209 East 23rd Street, New York City, from February 4 through March 8, 2008.

“The show is purposely apolitical but it is not neutral,” explains Francis Di Tommaso, “these works take aim at indifference. Every day we hear the news, but inevitably we become inured to it, and an ever widening disparity grows between our daily life and that of those involved in the conflict. The exhibition addresses this gap in engagement by presenting a selection of responses, expressed visually, from those who have lived a part of this war.”

“Testimony to War” encompasses a wide range of formal approaches, from powerful documentary interpretations to highly stylized, personal reflections. The works also suggest the varied possibilities for artistic response to war, from the realistic drawings of Steve Mumford made on site to Peter Buotte’s installation of target-shaped American flag magnets, evoking the number of US military deaths in Iraq and Aaron Hughes’ collaborative project with Ahmed Jabar Shareef, a nine-year old boy from Baghdad who was blinded and badly wounded in a firefight outside of his home.

“Testimony to War” will include several never-before-exhibited works. On view will be approximately 90 color and black and white images, accompanied by a voice-over, by award-winning photographer Lucian Read. The photographs depict Marines with whom he was embedded—from scenes of fraternal camaraderie to stark images of isolation and displacement—and the devastating aftermath of combat for both Americans and Iraqis. Steve Mumford’s recent drawings and watercolors, of which approximately 20 will be on view, chronicle the monotonous routines of soldiers, crowded street scenes bustling with activity, private moments of grief in a Baghdad hospital, and veterans undergoing physical therapy back in the U.S. The exhibition will also mark the first viewing of Ryan Roa’s installation, Freedom Calls; standing on an elevated plywood platform in the shape of a U.S. flag shoulder patch, the visitor listens to Americans define freedom in phone calls placed randomly by the artist.

The artists’ motivations for engaging with Iraq in their work are as varied as their experiences. Steve Mumford, who was embedded with U.S. military units during five trips to Iraq, traveled there for the purpose of creating art, says “I was not making art to protest the war, nor was I making art to further the ‘war on terror.’ I just wanted to see what it was like and document it.” Peter Buotte remarks, “Even in a war zone, there’s an opportunity for expression. I found that very important, that one could take a moment to pause and reflect upon that immediate, pressing, hazardous war situation.” Aaron Hughes sees his personal war narrative as a starting point for a larger dialogue, saying he is “interested in creating a human understanding between emotions and experience.”

Maine-based artist Peter Buotte has served as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve for the past seven years. From March 2003 to 2004, Buotte was assigned to the 411 Civil Affairs Battalion, spending time in Najaf, Fallujah, and Baghdad, where he hired translators and worked on the reconstruction of Iraqi schools with the Ministry of Education. Buotte studied at the School of Visual Arts (BFA 1999 Fine Arts); the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, where he was a rotary scholar; and the Maine College of Art in Portland, where he received an MFA in Arts and Education. He has been a visiting artist at the University of Maine in Augusta and has lectured nationally and abroad. Buotte’s work has been included in several group exhibitions and in the solo exhibition “To Baghdad and Back.”

In January 2003 Army Sergeant Aaron Hughes , a National Guardsman studying at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, was called to active duty with the 1244th Transportation Company Army National Guard. As a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, his company was deployed to Kuwait, where he supported combat operations by transporting supplies from camps and ports in Kuwait to camps in Iraq for over a year. He returned to the University of Illinois in the spring of 2005 and subsequently received his BFA in Painting. Hughes is now pursuing an MFA at Northwestern University. He has curated several exhibitions for the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and is currently at work on the publication of Dust Memories, a book that visually documents his journey through Iraq.

New York artist Steve Mumford, a School of Visual Arts alumnus (MFA 1994 Fine Arts), first traveled to Iraq on his own initiative in 2003. Inspired by the example of Winslow Homer, who went to Civil War battlefields for Harper’s magazine, Mumford made five trips to Iraq for a total of 10 months. Often accompanying U.S. troops throughout Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, he made ink drawings and watercolors in the field, which were published on In early 2007, he returned to Baghdad, where he recorded scenes from the 28th Combat Support Hospital. His critically acclaimed work has been shown extensively and is featured in the book, Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (Drawn and Quarterly, 2005).

A Texas-born, New York-based photographer, Lucian Read has worked in Iraq, the Balkans, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the United States. He first traveled to Iraq in the summer of 2004 with a Marine unit deployed from San Diego and documented their complete tour, which ended with their return to San Diego in February of 2005. He has since returned five more times, spending in total nearly two years in country, embedded with Marine and Army infantry and medical units throughout central, western and northern Iraq. In 2006, he was recognized for his photographic work in Iraq with a World Press Award. Read’s images have been published in magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, US News & World Report, Paris Match, Stern, The New York Times, American Photo and An extensive selection of his photographs with the U.S. Marine Corps hangs on the walls of the National History of the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia.

A member of the U.S. Army Reserve, Staff Sergeant Ryan Roa was called to active duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in December 2002, one semester before he was scheduled to complete his undergraduate studies in Art Education and Sculpture at SUNY New Paltz. He served for one year in Baghdad as a Team Sergeant for a Civil Affairs Team. Upon his return, he completed his degrees and is currently enrolled in the MFA program in Combined Media at Hunter College in New York. Roa’s work has been included in several group shows, including the American Democracy Project’s exhibition “Raise Your Voice.”

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