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By Russ Cooper
Since early December, the plans to display the work of photographer Darren Ell (MFA 08) surrounding the precarious political situation in Haiti had been in motion. The day the pictures were hung on the walls of the CJ Building’s Media Gallery was Jan. 13 – one day after the Caribbean nation was razed by the devastating 7.0 earthquake.
While Ell’s exhibition Haiti: Holdup does not directly address the ultimate failure of Haiti’s physical infrastructure, it serves to bring poignancy to Haiti’s unstable political infrastructure and the oppression the people have suffered from for decades.
“This exhibition is about the political earthquake caused by the aftermath of the coup d’état of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004,” says Ell, who gathered the photos over three one-month stints in Haiti between 2006 and 2008. “But long before his overthrow, the country has never really had a chance to establish balance at all.
“Port-au-Prince collapsed because it was built extremely poorly. It was built poorly because there weren’t any building codes. That’s because the government has never been strong enough to institute regulations.”
Comparing the Jan. 12 disaster to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake (also measuring 7.0), Ell points out the U.S. had the social, political and physical infrastructure to keep the death toll to 63. The final number still being tabulated, the estimates from Haiti are as many as 200 000 dead.
For Ell, who studied political science, his interest in Haiti stems from Canadian involvement in Aristide’s overthrow. “Prior to the Afghanistan war, Haiti was the largest recipient of Canadian foreign aid. As an artist or journalist, I’ve always tried to explore subject matter that has allowed me to encounter people from other countries, but specifically countries where I could explore in a critical manner the nature of Canadian involvement.”
The exhibition is three 7’ by 5’ pictures “large to catch people’s attention, to mimic history painting, and to mirror the theatrical nature of the content,” he says. The images, depicting street scenes of Haitian citizens’ experience of living under the thumb of the military rule are accompanied by a haunting video cycling through the fragments of official information released surrounding the 7 500 members of Aristide’s party who fled, or were arrested or killed following his ouster.
This is the fourth body of work Ell has produced since beginning photography and writing for alternative media in the 90s. Haiti: Rewind (2008) was his current exhibition’s predecessor, 2004’s Twice Removed dealt with the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and his exhibition Between States, addressing the treatment of refugee claimants in Canada, won a 2007 Photo Annual award for student work from photography magazine, Photo District News (PDN).
His work has been featured in the National Post, La Presse, CBC Radio Canada, the Toronto Star and Canadian Dimension magazine. His coverage of Haiti has been featured on the National Film Board of Canada’s CitizenShift website.
Ell will be returning to Haiti this summer. As the situation has so drastically changed, Ell isn’t sure yet if he’ll be continuing the project, though he’s not ruling it out either. “The project could evolve, but now it has the potential to turn into something completely different,” he says.
The exhibition runs until Feb. 26 at the Media Gallery L-CJ 1.419 (see Journal, Nov. 12, 2009).
UPDATE: the exhibition has been extended until April 2, 2010.