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Art with a purpose
Yellowknife-born artist discusses the social responsibility of the artist at the museum tonight

Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Published Friday, August 6, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - History books suggest the U.S.-Vietnam war ended in April, 1975, with the fall of Saigon. Yellowknife-born sculptor Blake Ward knows better.

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Fragments is an exhibit of bronze sculptures by Yellowknife-born artist Blake Ward. The exhibit is on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre until Sept. 5. - Daron Letts/NNSL photo

Ward visited Vietnam to teach at the Hanoi Fine Arts University for six weeks in 2003. It marked the first time a western professor led classes at the institution since 1945. Ward took the opportunity to travel throughout the country and into Cambodia, where he experienced a disturbing revelation.

"I was shocked to find that this war that I thought was over, was in fact not over," Ward said.

The war Ward watched on television as a child still claims casualties due to the millions of land mines and unexploded bombs and mortars that blanket the region to this day.

"At the current rate of removal it will take 1,000 years to remove all the land mines and unexploded ordinance," Ward said. "It upset me. It was haunting me. I needed to do something. I felt I needed to express this in my work. With this in mind, I looked at work that I had already done."

Ward returned home to southern France, where he has lived for the last two decades, and dug out three bronze sculptures he created a few years earlier. Inspired at the time by classical Roman ruins he had explored in Turkey, his sculptures mimicked the crumbling marble torsos that once honoured the perfection of the human figure.

Marred by cracks and with chunks missing, Ward's often limbless statues took on a new meaning following his experience of the land mine problem in Cambodia.

"The sculptures spoke to me of this issue," he said. "I find they are a literal and symbolic representation of what land mines do not only to an individual, but to a society."

Ward created more anguished bodies, each one beautiful in its classical interpretation of the human form and each one violently disfigured as if vandalized by an invading army. Like victims of a land mine explosion, many of the statues are missing legs, arms and eyes. He titled the series Fragments.

"Fragments are what I call intentional art," Ward explained. "There is not only a concept but an actual purpose behind them. They are more than just sculptures."

Ward put his art into action. Not content merely to raise awareness of the human destruction caused by minefields, the sculptor raised money.

For two years he donated three-quarters of the sales of the sculptures to a variety of de-mining groups. He raised almost $200,000 in all. In 2007 and 2008 the money helped clear a minefield in Vietnam, map a minefield in Angola, clear NATO cluster bombs in Kosovo, and provide risk education for mothers living among minefields in Afghanistan.

"I am pushing art beyond just the concept into a purpose," Ward said. "Conceptual art is about an idea. Intentional art is about a purpose. Art has a function."

The function of Ward's latest international exhibit, a video installation titled The Burning Buddha, is to pressure international leaders who refuse to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, part of the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights.

To make the video, Ward sculpted a bronze statue of a naked girl seated in the lotus position. He poured gasoline over the figure and lit her on fire. A narrator identifies the countries that have not ratified the agreement, such as Fiji, Vatican City, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. refuses to ratify the document, as well, and breaks its principles by committing capital punishment. Ward also criticizes other countries for committing human rights abuses, including Ireland for denying abortion rights to women. He plans to present the video in Toronto this fall.

Ward is scheduled to speak in Yellowknife tonight on the subject of the role of the artist and social responsibility. He will present talks at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, where his Fregments exhibit is on display, at 5:30 and 7 p.m. He will be at the exhibit until 8 p.m. this evening. The exhibit continues at the museum until Sept. 5.

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