War and Art: The Wordless Book and other deserts, an exhibition of work by Canadian War Artist Allen Ball | By Tori McNish

The Wordless Book and other deserts was recently shown at the Strathcona County Art Gallery @501, a fairly new local public art gallery located in Sherwood Park. The exhibition featured work by local artist Allen Ball, who is currently a professor of painting and drawing/ intermedia at the University of Alberta.

The work in this solo show, Ball’s first at the new gallery, comes from Ball’s time volunteering in the Canadian Forces Artist Program. In this initiative, restarted in 2001, artists are sent around the world to observe and “capture the daily operations, personnel and spirit of the Canadian Forces”.

Ball was sent, in 2007, to observe officers deployed with Operation Calumet, the Canadian contingent of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent peacekeeping operation in the Sinai Peninsula. The Multinational Force and Observers was created in 1981, following the Camp David Accord, to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace, and employ its best efforts to prevent any violation of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace”.

Ball, together with his experience living with and observing the Canadian troops posted in the Sinai Peninsula, utilized the Christina evangelical tool the Wordless Book as inspiration. The Wordless Book is a conceptual idea that was invented by the famous Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon in the late 19th century.

Photo used with the permission of the artist

The Wordless Book, as Ball depicts it, consists of four equal sized square pages in the solid colours of black, red, white and gold. Black is meant to symbolize “the sinful state of humanity by nature”. Red is meant to symbolize the blood of Jesus. White represents “the perfect righteousness which God has given to believers through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ his Son,” and gold, Heaven.

The Wordless Book was used highly successfully in East Asian countries at the turn of the century to assist missionaries in the conversion of Asian peoples to Christianity. Ball in fact appropriates a common image showing preachers utilizing the Wordless Book in China in the first piece of the show, aptly titled simply The Wordless Book.

This appropriated image of a woodcut by Thomas Eyre first appeared in the book China’s Millions: The China Inland Mission and Late Qing Society, 1832-1905. In this blown-up version of the mainly black and white image, the Wordless Book sits centrally, highlighted by the sole addition of colour to the pages strung vertically: black, red, white, gold. This work is a visual manifestation of Ball’s inspiration, setting a premise for the rest of the exhibition.

In almost every work the Wordless Book appears repeatedly as an equal-sided cross, reminiscent of the Canadian Red Cross logo. The work next to The Wordless Book, titled The Wordless Book and Blood, is only one variation of no less than twelve similar images emphasizing this shape.

Photo used with the permission of the artist

Though simple looking, each of these works invite the viewer to meditate on one of the ideas preached through the Wordless Book by featuring one of the colours and an associate word in the title. Repeated so many times throughout the small exhibition space, these works acted as a supporting structure to the real highlights of the show.

Stand out works in the exhibition included El Gorah: Heaven, That Shepherd: Righteousness, Surveillant: Evil and Locked Down: Blood. These works, too, each featured one colour from the Wordless Book, as well as the shape of the Red Cross and an associative word in the title. Placed throughout the exhibition space, these large works served as anchoring points for both the exhibition itself and the underlying thematic concepts.

The large canvases are almost completely painted in their titular colour, with the equal-sided shape of the Red Cross serving as a window to an image behind the painted out canvas. In El Gorah: Heaven, the canvas is painted gold with the image behind the window of a “paradise”. In That Shepherd: Righteousness, the canvas is painted white with the image of farmer’s fields through the cross-shaped window, not unlike the many images of Alberta prairies. In Surveillant: Evil, we see the image of a military officer looking through binoculars while standing behind a barricade, but the area he is looking at is painted out in black. In Locked Down: Blood, we see the image of an unmoving helicopter, with the surrounding area painted in red.

The inability of the viewer to see beyond the cross-shaped window in these works brings up an important question – what is beyond the cross? This is most evident in the work Surveillant: Evil, where we cannot see what the man is looking at through his binoculars. Based upon the title of the work, and inferring from the colour from the Wordless Book used, we are told the subject is “evil” or “sin”. But is evil the unknown the man is looking at? Is it the man himself? Is it the people or military he represents?

Photo used with the permission of the artist

The shape of the window itself delves deeper into the potential meaning of the question posed “what is beyond the cross?” By serving as a representation of the peacekeeping intention of the mission and Christianity, asking, “what is beyond the cross?” is asking what may be beyond the peacekeeping intentions of the mission. Is it religion or morals? Is it preservation? Is it power?

Ball’s work breaks apart ideas of what people may believe a peacekeeping mission might look like, Canada’s role in the Sinai Peninsula, and the function of an artist deployed through this clever use of the evangelical tool the Wordless Book and the commonly known logo of the Red Cross. By forcing us to confront unglorified images of contemporary military operations juxtaposed with these powerful emblems, Ball is compelling us to ask ourselves contentious questions regarding the role of religion in military operations.

Given the recent escalation in hostility between Palestine and Israel, a major factor in the Egyptian-Israeli conflict of the 1970s, this exhibition, and Ball’s take on Canada’s military presence in the area, is especially apt.

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  • jeff

    Well written