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Sandra Ramos

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A girl with a woman’s body lays naked on a bed with red sheets; on her right hand she is grasping a small dollar bill apparently found on George Washington’s pot belly, who also naked, is lying on his back, tired out after having enjoyed the pleasures of youth. Staring at the scene behind a window stands Liborio *, the bearded man wearing a hat. The scene he is watching tears him apart and two big white teardrops are running down his withered cheeks.

This is how Sandra Ramos condenses the end of innocence, referring to the early nineties when the Cuban people at awakening on a dark morning found out that the drastic end of Eastern patronage had left totally exposed the virtuality of socialist prosperity. As this well-being was too propped up from abroad, it could not be kept up in times of collapses and thaws. And the illusion of believing we were the privileged dwellers of a region which had been able to overcome historical class contradictions, changed overnight and turned into a dramatic reality, marked by the contradiction between the surplus superstructure and the lack of means to meet everyday needs – since empty stomachs can never be contented with dreams, ideals or utopias. Is it the innocence of the girl-woman which has been lost, together with her virginity in a hotel bed? Is it the Island flirting with old capitalism? Or is it perhaps the new generation of artists leaving behind the ingenuity of their redeeming projects while learning to think in market terms? It could be all this and much more because the artwork itself is indeed that tragic circumstance.

The more I dwell upon the artistic output of creators such as Sandra Ramos and her peers, the more I am convinced that the best examples of their generation ,who took the lead of Cuban art in the early nineties, are those that harmonized organically and successfully every esthetic dichotomy left unsolved during the previous decade. These young people, who majored at the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA) in the late eighties or early nineties, were at the apex of their training at the time the so called “renewal of Cuban art” took place.

Such is Sandra’s case, for example:

  • 1983-1985, she studies elementary level
  • 1985-1988, she studies at the Academy San Alejandro
  • 1988-1993 she majors at ISA.

*Liborio is a well-known caricature that stands for the ordinary Cuban. He started appearing in the written press in the early 1900’s. He has a beard and always wears a straw hat, like the mambises, the soldiers of the Cuban army who fought in the woods against Spain for the independence of Cuba.

Therefore it is evident that the sensitivity and esthetic epistemology reached by the prevailing cultural circles during that decade- which put in crisis the epigonous and positive modernism of the seventies - had a deep bearing on the formation of the new promotion of artists, in the same way that it has had an effect on our health, on the kind of air we breathe. The policy of conferring with the social context without yielding; the ethical commitment to the cognoscitive potential of art and progressive thought; the loyalty to the major project of human emancipation from the standpoint of the contribution to its constant de-automation. All these are explicit attitudes of a mood that can be perceived in all of Sandra Ramos’s artworks as well as in those of many of her peers. And in this stance, concerning art and society, lays the legacy of the best progressive art of the eighties which had thrived on the antagonistic spirit of the vanguard tradition of Cuban art. In fact, Sandra’s generation had the chance of perceiving the setbacks of the salvation stories that were to follow and perhaps art was taken more calmly though with equal seriousness. These artists were much more flexible and unbiased concerning the use of media and the creative process so many of them overcame quite naturally the esthetic prejudices which excessive contextual postmodernist procedures had left behind in Cuban visual arts. They carried out an organic renovation of traditional artistic genres which had been deemed as outdated languages. And that was how painting, engraving and photography- particularly in set designing- were revived in the nineties, together with conceptual keenness, metaphoric subtlety, and critical discourse. In fact, without any kind of embarrassment, they took great pride in their capacity for producing beauty.

Sandra Ramos is a paradigmatic example of flexibility in the use of materials, languages, supports, etc., which characterizes her generation. She endows the engraving with a conceptual dimension showing that the cognoscitive capacity of art is neither exclusive nor conditioned to any means of expression. She makes the gallery space get involved and creates suggestive environments by blending objects, texts, pictures, even photography, videos and other technological devices in installation structures. During the last two decades Sandra has been able to grasp the complexity of her country’s present with metaphorical shrewdness, conceptual density, and imaginative eloquence. Even though she has the skill of an academic artist, she likes to experiment with new technological possibilities if they suit artistic communication.

In another work of the series The history lesson (1996, to which The end of innocence also belongs), Liborio is by the pionerita *, both holding an old tree as though sharing a prayer; on the branches instead of leaves there are green bills. Behind, El Bobo ** sails northwards on a boat drawn by an ox, as though ploughing the sea and the waves look like the furrows in a field. On the bottom you can read: cultivating miracles.

*When children enter school at the age of six, they choose to join the O.P.J.M. (Organizacion de Pioneros Jose Marti. They make a pledge: ‘Pioneros por el comunismo”. “Seremos como el Che. (Pioneers for communism’. We shall be like Che (Guevara). In this ceremony they are given a blue scarf. When they are in fourth grade in another ceremony, they renew their pledge and are given a red scarf. La pionerita wears a blue scarf.

**El Bobo (The Fool) is a comic strip character created by Eduardo Abela in 1926. He became popular as he was used to criticize the regime of Dictator G. Machado in the early 1930’s.

This is an excellent example of the way in which Sandra allegorically and sarcastically reflects on the ruses for survival, both psychic and material, which the Cuban people had to devise. On the one hand, obstinate idealists, on the discourse level, cultivate a blind faith on miracles, whereas strategically, trading with “greens” was about to start; some others, the “crooks” who in times of hardship would rather be taken as fools, boast about sacrifice when they are really preparing their escape to the north. The pionerita stands for innocence in its purest state as well as for the gullible hope of great sectors of the people. And by synthesizing these human attitudes, by contiguous metonym, the artist leads us to activate every contextual reference: that contradictory panorama of upheaval, desperation and collective uncertainty which hung over the future at the end of the millennium.

Sometimes I think that the naïf esthetics developed by the artist, not only in her graphic works but also in her paintings, has been her strategic move to focus attention on the theme, and not on the formal- esthetic imperatives mostly related to graphics. These simple formal solutions (in terms of the visual composition since concerning technical aspects, nothing in engraving is simple) seem to have granted all the freedom required by the synthetic capacity of her visual-esthetic thought. It is evident that Sandra’s interest does not lie in form as something pure, to delight the eyes. She does not waste her time showing off her technical expertise, neither is she concerned about visual primness. She discourses on the essentials up to the necessary extent. She has the power of crystallizing an idea with the least formal expressions possible, like a visual statement which in general she complements and enhances with a verbal statement functioning as a scathing relay of sense. With such creative skills, there is no need to resort to redundancies, useless diversions or informative noises that add nothing to the structural ambiguity of the artistic message.

Another important aspect of her approach to engraving and painting is the use of three fetish characters that fill most of her series and are the key to grasping the conceptual dimension of her works: El Bobo (The Fool), Liborio, and the pionerita. She not only introduces the self-referential dimension but also recycles the intertextual reference to L. Carroll’s Alice. In every visual narration these characters play all kinds of roles, attitudes, reactions, coping with dissimilar situations and shifting according to the circumstances. Now then, as the three possess their own quasi autonomous, symbolic significance, they function as semiotic triggers that direct the focus off the artwork towards a referential universe which is both historical and contextual. On the other hand, this symbolic charge is what makes the relationship of meanings between the different sign elements subversive and non automatized. That is, the artist uses them to code her messages. Therefore, it could be drawn that Sandra’s way of discoursing has always got as hypo-text the past, present and future history of her country. And that history is lead by the hand of each of her fetish characters in an ironic and conspiracy-like attitude.

In fact each one of her series could bear History lesson as heading. History told through art: emancipated from every schematic manipulation, without any absolute certainty, stable meaning or definitive truth. History open to a plurality of meanings, to a blaring polyphony…History lessons in which the authoritarian monologue finds no echo, chorus or applause. Sandra’s works are like small monads, capable of reflecting in their inner walls the essence of social totality. Just like Leibnitz’ monads, they are the points of spiritual strength.

I will try to itemize some of the issues which have been the focus of reflection for the artist:

  • The prostitution that swarmed the country when it opened to international tourism. (series A happy tour along the island of Cuba, 1992).
  • The lode of capitalism which entered the system with the increase of tourism, the de-penalization for having American dollars.
  • The opening of a network of shops for buying only in foreign currency and the setting up of joint ventures with foreign capital. (series The history lesson, 1996).
  • Academic education, as a means of indoctrination rather than of instruction.
  • The increasing abstract character of old utopias.
  • The Island besieged by hurricanes and domestic vortexes.
  • The feeling of confinement and the instinct to escape.
  • The epochal and generational succession of power.
  • The uncertainty about the future.
  • The theme of emigration that constitutes a high percentage of her output in the nineties.

I would like to go over a series made between the years 2002 and 2008 and that personally fascinates me since it is like a fresco of domestic news, enjoyed as reports for the evening news through the screen of an Atec-Panda TV set. As it is known, Panda TV sets were distributed among the CDR’s (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and working centers; that is, schools, day care centers, etc. were filled up with them so that this make of TV set became an icon and a symbol of the “University for Everybody” and “Massive Culture” era. Therefore the artist’s intention to join the pursuit of socializing knowledge by also using the Panda screens to focus on essential issues for the country is totally legitimate. These matters have barely or not often been approached by mass media and the conceptual game which articulates this series tries to emulate the social responsibility of a medium such as television, by exposing its cultural negligence. And to make this paradox complete, up to now none of the national galleries has agreed to exhibit this series. Like any other citizen, the artist is entitled to contribute to the massiveness of culture but it turns out that in her case this right has not been granted yet.

No less significant than her graphic or pictorial works are Sandra’s installations. I have already mentioned that she has many facets and making installations has been quite relevant since the very beginning of her career. This setting enables her to move away from her obsession-themes, breathe fresh air and let go a little of those characters which she has been carrying with her for two decades. Without the rhetorical support of these fetish actors Sandra seems to be a different artist, she unfolds another dimension of her discourse: the stage –like arrangement. It is heterogeneous and fragmented, blending in objects, visual effects, sounds, procedures and interactivity with high tech devices. In her installation artworks she fulfills her vocation for creating theatrical atmospheres, but always using the least possible resources, that is, she does not use rich and showy technology that lacks content.
In a solo show made in 1999 at the Galeria Habana entitled Immersions and burials, the artist included two installations whose subject matter was the impact some social phenomena has had in the Cuban society during the so called “special period”. Inside a trash container, full of every kind of waste, a video was played on a TV set over and over again ; in this way the public had to put his/her head into the garbage to be able to see the images: documentaries about buzos – (divers) - curious metaphor used in slang to call people who actually make a living by diving deep into the decay of big trash containers looking for raw materials or anything they can use. Of course, the only title the artwork could have was Buzos – I would have added of the Promised Land. With the other installation the artist proposed a machine to drown one’s sorrows. The artifact consisted of a beer cask and the public could either help themselves to some alcohol or through a sort of reflecting mirror, look at some images of the sea, like a deep spiral coming from inside the cask. This artwork besides tackling the issue of increasing alcoholism in the country –statistics were not really needed as it was quite apparent – conceals a subtlety (contained in the title) which could be synthesized in the following question: Who runs, provides and puts into operation the machinery for people to drown the sorrows of their unfortunate everyday life?

Promises. Installations and videos by Sandra Ramos (Casa de las Americas,2003) is another solo exhibition in which the artist wondered about the possible contact points, or rather the simultaneity in which pilgrimages and political marches took place in the Island although they were due to different causes and motives. On the one hand, there was a desperate outburst of popular religiousness which like a spiritual refuge and the ultimate stronghold of hope for many; on the social side, there were calls for multitudinous marches and open anti-imperialist tribunes.

On the occasion of the 9th Biennial of Havana (2006) had the idea of making an electrocardiogram to Cuban society, which resulted in Electrocotidianograma ( Electroeverydaygram) .The register of the electric activity of the social heart showed that the irregularities of the visual waves were altered. This apparently was due to stress caused by some setbacks, like the overcrowded “camels”, the dilapidated buildings threatening to collapse, the political confrontation between the provocative signs at the US interest section and the “mount of flags” at the Tribune and to make matters worse the country was hit by pitiless, devastating hurricanes. Technical wit, subtle metaphors, respect and solidarity in this artwork clearly illustrate Sandra’s interest in registering the ordeals undergone by her own people; an amazingly strong people without doubt since as it is shown in the work, those hearts, though accelerated still resist collapse.

Lastly, I would like to reflect now on the unique manner in which Sandra uses the iconic sign Isla de Cuba. Sometimes she represents the island as a small green plaything for the Bobo, the pionerita or Liborio to have fun with. There is a work in which the pionerita is about to throw the green toy to Liborio, who is waiting keenly, holding a long bat so as not to be put out in the last inning (2010). In Relay race (2010) the island is the baton passed in a relay race in which the runners are characters of successive epochs, among them el Bobo, Liborio and la pionerita. In Mea Culpa, the Island adopts the shape of a big nose that stems from Liborio, crosses the face of el Bobo and stretches out along la pionerita into the future. In Malecon (Breakwater, 2006) the Island is a kite and Liborio is standing on the wall of the malecon flying it.

However, in many other examples, a woman’s body or that of a small girl’s is used to represent the Island. Girl, Woman, Island … an intimate geography that personifies the geography of the nation. It is necessary to point out that the term Island not only refers to a certain geographical condition, but it also functions as a female representation of the country. The same thing happens with the term La Revolucion which is a female personification of a political process. And yet, why is it that these two living beings so dear to our history during the last fifty years are objectivized as female signs in a country fertilized by the telluric vitality of manhood? There is a simple answer. It is known that the thought of domination implies the need to objectify the being as a pre-condition to possess it, since what is not visualized or represented cannot be stabilized, conformed to a standard, regulated, etc. The male needs to possess and the female is that soft and wet horizon where the seed of domination can be spread. When Sandra represents the Island as a woman’s body she is giving a concrete form to the sublimated desire for power expressed in her discourse. Following this train of thought I feel no doubt in advancing the thesis that this edge of her work conveys a certain feminist attitude in the sense that if objectifying the being is a need for its domination and if this objectifying is phallocentric as well, then when it is female in all its variants (Island, Revolution, Motherland, Nation, etc.) it fosters stereotypes that play a very distinctive role and function within the ideological rhetoric. Consequently, the emancipation of the stereotype and everything it involves is only possible through the de-construction which stems from femininity itself. This femininity must be strong enough so that the domination relationships are evident, since they constitute the foundations on which ideological categories are built.

When Sandra herself becomes the Island, or when she represents it as a woman’s body, she is disclosing that historical objectification of the space in which we live, unblocking the national being’s femininity we all feel one way or another. That is why in this kind of artwork we feel that it is a mother who is telling us, from the bottom of her heart, about her historical suffering, about the miseries of her children and the excesses of utopian chivalry. Some other times we feel that it is a keen girl who calls upon us not to stand any longer the suffocating constraint of that paranoiac uterus and move on towards the emancipation of new gestures, new words, new time, new hopes, new prophets, that is , of a new life.

Several of her artworks could illustrate the thesis I uphold; among the most recent ones we can mention: Isla (2006), oil on canvas: in this painting you see a woman-island lying like if she has fainted; her pose and clothing are classical; a mount of flags grows from her body and the pionerita is standing in the middle holding one of the flags. Island trapped by death and The wheel of history (2009) chalcography engravings: in the first one, the girl-island is coiled around a red rope hanging from the hand of a corpse whose bony limb is the only visible part; in the second one, a huge threatening wheel is chasing Liborio, who tries to escape running down the cliff with the island- girl in one of his hands. In the series Atec-Panda there is a work titled We are happy here: on the screen of that precious artifact you see the island changed into an athlete who tries to swim through a swelling sea of posters showing smiling red lips. In Heavy Weight (2008) the pionerita is lying on her stomach in a very pale pink background that drips over the canvas and above the vulnerable body of the child there is a huge and arrogant podium with five microphone bars that pierce her. At any rate, Sandra Ramos’s feminism has nothing to do with lamenting the margination and historical exclusion of women. Her feminism, understood as a strategy of de-construction and critique, hints at the historical imagery of a far vaster body, much more abstract, needing far more the intervention of a thought capable of unblocking the rest of the possible representations of what we polyphonically wish to Be.

In the audiovisual animation Solar system (2010) we see two planes of our universe: a general one and the other one with some details of the planets in their orbit; in the next sequence, the planets have transformed into some historical characters like Washington, Marx, Lenin (including la pionerita, the little duck, the green box) and instead of the sun, there is an old man snugly tucked in his bed. Later we can see that the delusion is broadcast through the screen of an Atec-Panda TV set. Suddenly… the pionerita’s face appears and we see her walking towards the artifact with her finger pointing threateningly to the power button. End of the story.

La Habana, February 2012.