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Sandra Ramos

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Water bottles shaped like tears -- or are they rain drops, really? -- come down from the ceiling to the floor, their shadows on a white wall casting another layer of poetic deluge. "Why do rain drops look so much like tears?" murmurs artist Sandra Ramos, echoing the title of her installation piece, ¿Por qué se parecen tanto la lluvia y el llanto?

Like the Cuban Alice in Wonderland character Ramos created in another work, a series of engravings, the 33-year-old Havana artist stands before her poignant exhibit at the Miami Design District's Casas Riegner Gallery and marvels at the raves generated by her first solo show in the United States. It's titled Heritage of the Fish after a soulful poem by the late exiled Cuban writer Gastón Baquero, Testamento del pez (The Fish's Last Will and Testament), in which a fish professes his devotion to the city he abandoned. In five installations using sculpture, photographic self-portraits, video and water -- lots of water -- Ramos comments on the losses fueled by exodus after exodus from the island. "Water is a symbol of the situation in Cuba, of the sadness of separation, of the impotence we feel before things that happen and we cannot change," Ramos says. "I've always used water in my work in some form, but lately, it has evolved from a secondary role to being a fundamental and symbolic element." Ramos' art, which has attracted attention from Mexico to Tokyo and has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is remarkable enough on its artistic merit alone. But it is even more so because she's a vanguard artist inside Cuba, part of a generation that in the past decade broke through some of the constraints of censorship and made art, music, movies and authored works reflective of the starkness of Cuban reality.

These artists, writers, musicians and cinematographers fueled a boom of Cuban culture now in jeopardy as the regime renews its repressive apparatus following the sentencing of 75 dissidents to long jail terms and the executions of three men who tried to commandeer a ferry to the United States. "Who knows what's going to happen?" says Ramos, who has now returned to that politically charged Havana. Ramos' artwork -- paintings, etchings, installations -- mourn the choice of exile, the trauma of abandoning the island, the break-up of family ties, the loss of childhood, of love, of self. In a chalcography, she creates an Alice in Wonderland-like girl from a picture of herself. The child waves to a plane taking off amid palm trees. It is titled: "Y cuando todos se han ido, llega la soledad." And when all have left, comes loneliness.

In another engraving, the elegiac body of a woman is slumped grieving in the shape of the island of Cuba. A pitched-black one shows only the soft silhouette of a man and a woman on a raft. The losses she reflects in her art are all too familiar. In 1992, her then-husband, a set designer in Havana, decided to leave Cuba. He traveled to Italy, Venezuela and is now living in Miami. "It was a very hard time for me," Ramos says. "I had to decide whether I was going to follow him or not." She chose to stay in Cuba, living through the "special period," the harshest economic times in recent Cuban history, infamous for food shortages that prompted people to invent unimaginable dishes. "Can you believe grapefruit rinds marinaded and fried like steak?" Ramos laughs. The hardships fueled her art, she says. Without electricity in her apartment nor transportation to go back and forth, she remained in her studio from dawn to dusk pouring her grief, her sense of isolation into her work.

She broke into the international art scene in the mid-1990s after she participated in and curated several Havana biennials. International curators and art gallery owners who traveled to Cuba for the events saw her work and began showing it in their galleries and promoting her abroad. Her pieces also have been exhibited at Art Basel, Art Miami and Art Chicago. "She's an artist who surrenders her biography, her most intimate feelings and her own body to discuss social, political and cultural problems," Cuban art critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera has said of her work. "She uses her portrait to personify the Cuban flag, the island, establishing a parallel between her personal situation and the suffering of her own country." Born in 1969 in Havana, Ramos lives in the once-grand neighborhood of Vedado in an old house that she and her husband restored from shambles and have furnished with antiques other Cubans have sold to them. She has a 1 ½-year-old daughter, Alexa.

The main piece in her living room used to be one of her favorite paintings, an old-fashioned crib suspended in a charcoal-gray nothingness by tiny pink wings. But a foreign visitor fell in love with the work and she sold it. "It's very hard to sell something that has been a part of you for so long," she says. Inspired by her best friend's grandmother, Gloria González, who was a painter, Ramos began her art studies at age 12 in Havana's Escuela Elemental de Artes Plásticas. "I loved to go to her house and watch her paint," Ramos remembers. She studied at the prestigious San Alejandro Academy and at Instituto Superior de Arte under the tutelage of the talented "1980 generation," artists like José Bedia, Leandro Soto and Carlos Cárdenas -- all now exiled in the United States.

"There's an entire part of my life in Cuba up to 1994 that has all left, that is here now," Ramos says. But leaving the island is not for her. "Do you think that if you leave Cuba your art would suffer?" someone in the art gallery audience asks her one evening during a lecture. "Yes," Ramos readily answers. "My work is too related to my life there and my life would change a lot if I left. Maybe someday I need to change, but not now."