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SANDRA RAMOS: LIVING BRIDGE

SANDRA RAMOS transforms herself endlessly through her work. As a red-uniformed niña pionera (pioneer girl), during the early ‘90s, she explored the limits of her island world as a public school student (described by her as “andar sin pies ni manos”, “advancing without hands and feet”) in post-Revolutionary Cuba. During the island’s “Special Period” (Período Especial en Tiempo de Paz), c.1992-6, following the dissolution of the USSR, Ramos metamorphosed into a water creature -- half-fish, half-siren – navigating a silent underground world of extreme need, painful partings, long separations, death. She identified with the thousands of exhausted, broken hearted Cubans leaving their homeland, offering them suitcases (Maletas series, 1993-97) that she knew could not contain what they needed for their displaced lives. By 2012, Ramos had pared her self-image down to an all-seeing pair of eyes (Secret Fear series.) Those eyes, her own, witnessed major social transitions in Cuba, documenting the dystopian reality around her, its privations, self-delusions, and patient dignity.

The new century brought wider horizons as Ramos’s niña pionera found an alter ego in Lewis Carroll’s Alice. The Jabberwocky book (2005) locates Alice in Havana’s once-fashionable Malecón (seaside promenade), recalling Ramos’s first use of the theme in a printed image a decade earlier. Just as Alice entered the looking glass, we enter this looking-glass book through its mirrors, decoding the nonsensical poem that delighted and puzzled her. The world that surrounds Alice in Havana’s Malecón is as puzzling as the world beyond the looking glass -- nothing is what it seems. She discovers New York City, London, Paris and Istanbul. She is eccentric, at times steering her little sailboat under grand bridges. Alice also walks on bridges; sometimes, she IS the bridge, created with the arc of her own body.

Like Alice, Ramos pursued a scrutiny of her society with relentless determination. Ever darker works (2004-8) captured the uncertainty of quotidian life in Cuba. An interesting juncture in 2009 brought renewed power to the work. A cerebral, pared down approach of heightened contrasts and patterns unexpectedly freed her themes and imagery as she discovered new cities, different cultures, other worlds in Europe and North America.

Ramos’s recent solo show at the Museo Nacional during the Havana Biennial was the apogee of that centrifugal development. Its powerful centerpiece, 90 Miles, was a luminous bridge of photographic images, which invited visitors to cross it as they arrived at the exhibition. The first step onto the bridge was upon an image of the Miami skyline. The next steps across the structure were an immersion in blue -- images of ocean and sky over the Florida Straits, photographed in ten mile increments. At the other end, the final step revealed the Havana skyline. Whichever way one traversed it, Ramos’ puente captured the exciting risk of crossing the Florida Straits --- 90 miles straddling two geographic points engaged in intense political conflict. To contemporary Cubans, Ramos comments, the crossing is equivalent to the ancient mythological passage between Scylla and Charybdis.

An arresting pair of dark eyes, the artist’s, reveals Secret Fears, a series also shown at the 2012 Havana Biennial. Delicately printed and drawn images, combined with collage elements, emerge between the eyes, disclosing Ramos’s innermost preoccupations. The images vary greatly: tender (heart, rainbow, a child in utero); exciting (feathers, a passport, ruined cities, an airplane); threatening (a razor cut to the eye, a stabbing pencil, a battleship); and heartbreaking (separated lovers, a corpse, bloodshot, tearful eyes.) From her vast technical repertoire, Ramos draws, sews, cut, attaches, making each image unique.

Ramos’s early work once offered suitcases to the emigrating Cuban populace; now she offers them passports. Horizons, also from the recent Biennial, presents large format books emulating passports, inspired by real ones gathered from friends who obtained permission to travel abroad --- to Mexico, Spain, the US. They were carefully set within three-dimensional boxes, complemented by particular attributes and objects appropriate to the places visited. A European bridge is lovingly outlined in red yarn; a 'coffin juts out from a cemetery, breaking the frame; real sand and cutout birds adorn images of Cuban beaches --- an ofrenda (offering) to the vast majority of Cubans who were not allowed to travel.

Ramos is a superb printmaker, her original medium. Over time, she turned to more varied media, but her exquisite, assured mastery of all forms of printmaking is clear. One particular series stands out: the artist’s alter ego, Alice, still in red uniform, explores the world, from Cuba to outer space. The young girl: hangs between two palm trees, a watery vortex below; stands with a group of schoolgirls, saluting the Cuban flag every morning, reciting, “pioneros por el Comunismo, seremos como el Che” (“Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che”); sits in a Jules Verne time machine; together with bathers, faces an imminent storm. As Penelope, Alice patiently unravels an embroidered image of the island. One image shows Alice/Sandra extending her pencil , her artist’s tool, to create a passage where there is a break in a bridge. In another, she stretches her own body to make a bridge across the strait.

For this exhibition Ramos has created two compelling series and one installation of large panoramic prints. Collectibles, ironically titled, takes young Alice/Sandra on a tour of New York City, which surprisingly ends in California. The frenetic pace of the City turns everything topsy-turvy as she tumbles down the hole, barely missing the tangle and confusion of NY Subway. A visit to the top of the Chrysler Building is no less risky; Ramos provocatively projects its shadow as a hypodermic needle. Mariposas/ Butterflies suggests another dizzying ascent to a looming skyscraper. But the lovely creatures cannot fly, as they are pinned down. The Alice butterfly, like Icarus, grazes the sun and scorches her face. Her fate, at Sloppy Joe’s, is equally dismal; she curls up, drunk, at the bottom of a cheap plastic cup. Only two tour stops offer comfort: Kanji, whose Chinese cookie fortune offers timely advice, Keep True to the Dreams of your Youth; and San Francisco, a pleasurable trolley car ride. In the end, Alice sits cross-legged and alone, dreaming of Home.

Ramos continues the US travelogue --- on a national level and from a tougher critical viewpoint-- with Travel to the American Dream. Her brilliant interventions of texts and images of current US passports, question the values the US claims to stand for. Departing from stereotypical, romantically patriotic images, Ramos adds delicately drawn details and collages objects to turn their original meanings on their heads.

The image corresponding to Land, added in pinpricked lettering, is straightforward, a nostalgic pastoral scene from Anywhere, USA in the ‘30s, of a fast-disappearing agrarian world. Ramos manipulates the Statue of Liberty (Libertad) page, enhancing Lady Liberty with delicate drawing, across from a page stamped with a visa to visit Chile. In the foreground of the open passport, Ramos places miniature US soldiers, agents in the death of Salvador Allende, Socialist Chilean President. The ironic juxtaposition implies that in the US Liberty is selective and conditional. Ramos interferes also with Mount Rushmore, potent symbol of the nation’s history and power. Questioning the US interpretation of Independence, Ramos highlights the words “nation’, “survival” and “liberty” from a veiled warning by President Kennedy printed at the top of the page: “to every nation…whether it wishes us well or ill….” Ramos’s intervention of the monumental Presidential heads causes them to spout, not inspiring declarations of democracy, but menacing bursts of black smoke. Alice, a young immigrant, is trapped in the unraveled binding of the passport.

Aventura bespeaks daring and courage – a voyage across stormy seas seeking safe harbor. It is a doomed voyage, as the fragile vessel will capsize. Ramos interferes with the texts above the page to highlight three words that distill the tragic fate of innumerable immigrants: “Border”;”Homeland”, “the pursuit of happiness”. The last page of the passport, Future, seems an image of exploration and hope, recalling the early days of the US space program. The image would have delighted Ramos, when, a voracious young reader surrounded by scientists in her family, she discovered Jules Verne. The intrepid Alice sits in the spaceship, holding the strings to the future. A closer look at the text reveals that Alice’s explorations will be severely inhibited by the man-made limits and boundaries Ramos deplores: “restrictions”, “control”, “border protection”, “resident aliens.”

Habana Mirage, a series of four panoramic prints, allows Ramos’s imagination to travel free. While 90 Miles envisioned a walkway over the Florida Straits, Habana Mirage connects the island of Cuba, long isolated by conflict and the US embargo, to Manhattan island. There are obstacles: a beached whale (Ballena), powerful, beautiful, monstrous, the Leviathan of the North? Danger is near. Tornados approach from the sea, churning source of life and death. An old fashioned bridge (Puente) attempts to span the distance, but fails for the weakness at its core. Success comes in the form of an imaginary vessel – part frigate, part zeppelin, all hope. It bridges the distance between two cultures, as does the work of Sandra Ramos.

Susana Torruella Leval New York August 2012

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream

Travel to the American DreamTravel to the American Dream