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Datebook: Words and Images Interact in Exploration Of Exile

Poetry and photography meet in a new Twin City exhibition that highlights the struggles of refugees through the story of a German Jewish intellectual who, in order to escape Nazi persecution, undertook a perilous journey across the Pyrenees mountains. 

“La Ruta: Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage” is currently on view at the Wakely Gallery at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.  It was created by Joanne Diaz and Jason Reblando, a husband-and-wife team who have combined photography and poetry to relate the journey of German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, connecting his story to the plight of modern-day migrants around the world.  

Both Diaz and Reblando discovered the work of Benjamin, a cultural critic and philosopher, while they were in graduate school. 

“He was voracious in his interests and curiosities,” said Diaz, a poet and professor of literature and creative writing at IWU. “But he lived for the last few years of his life in exile. In 1940, he realized, like many Jewish exiles, that he would have to leave Europe. He tried to get out of France, and finally he just decided to go by foot.” 

“He found this woman, Lisa Fittko, who was also a German Jewish exile. And she helped him across what is now known as the Fittko route.” 

Fittko helped Benjamin successfully cross the Pyrenees, but the philosopher was in poor health. When he finally made it to Spain, Benjamin was informed by authorities that, as he had no exit visa, he would have to turn back. Unwilling to return to Nazi-occupied France, Benjamin checked into a hotel and took his own life that very night. 

“The circumstances of his final days and his traversing the Pyrenees was something that interested us,” Diaz explained. “So, we rented a car and we traveled across the Pyrenees borders.” 

Following in Benjamin’s footsteps inspired Reblando to capture the landscape in photographs, with Diaz composing poems to accompany the images.  

“I sort of took notes as I was taking the walk,” said Diaz. “When I returned home, I looked at all of Jason’s prints. I started to think about his prints and how to respond to them. Sometimes, I am responding in a way that is descriptive of the photo itself or its process.  Sometimes, I’m using the photograph as a springboard in order to meditate on Benjamin’s life, or the lives of Spanish refugees crossing the border or thinking about our contemporary moment as it relates to exiles. I’m trying to be as flexible as possible in my responses to the works.” 

“La Ruta: Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage” features images draped with a piece of vellum, onto which a poem has been printed. The viewer lifts the vellum to see the accompanying photo. 

“We talked about this a lot as far as how to have the text and image interact with each other,” Reblando explained. “We looked at lots of artists and writers who collaborate. You can have the text adjacent to the image, or have the text embedded in the image, text outside the image. We were experimenting with a lot of things to have it as more of an interactive experience.” 

The act of reading the poem and lifting the vellum off the photo presents an opportunity for the viewer to become more involved in what they are seeing, said Reblando. 

“I think the average person in a gallery will spend just a few seconds in front of a piece of art, absorb as much as they can and then move on," he said. "I think having the text draped over the image will force the viewer to contemplate the poem, and then lift the velum to reveal the photograph underneath. 

“The goal was to give a lot of pause and attention for viewers to engage with both the text and the image. Just a different layer of engagement with the physical act of participating in that.” 

Gallery visitors will find the poems reflect a cultural and historical view that is both broad and deep. Some poems reference classical mythology, or Dante’s “Inferno.” 

“When we thought about this project, we thought about deep history,” Diaz said. “Not just Walter Banjamin and his flight and his exile, but exile across time periods, across empires, across various authoritarian regimes. I go right back to the very beginning in some of my thinking and that’s in part responding to some of the imagery that Jason provided. 

“And also, the deep history of our language. Viewers will see a lot of attention to entomology, or word origins. And that’s something that for me, as a poet, is very important. But, again, I was brought to that in large part from what Jason was providing in the photography. It was just all there.” 

“La Ruta: Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage” continues through March 11  at the Wakely Gallery at IWU.


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.