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By transforming suitcases into powerful allegories, Sandra Ramos unpacks the plight and dreams of Cubans. A Havana resident, Ramos takes a valise and arranges radiant pigments, sand, spangles, and painted dolls inside it. The outcome is not only unusual and clever but also serious.

This artist has often relied upon the self-portrait to make emotionally charged statements. That idiom was very much present in her 1995 exhibition here, consisting of a series of works entitled "Creatures of the Island".

Ramos used her own image as the medium of a playful and profound meditation on the fate of being Cuban. Valises, jewel boxes, and trunks held private possessions that were made to resonate with ideas. The series' most powerful work, Creatures of the Island I, Mermaid, occupied a large trunk. Inside was a self-portrait of the artist as a mermaid underwater holding up Cuba, signified by green beads outlined with pearls. Filling the trunk was the mermaid's pale blue chest, revealing a red heart and branching veins, and her beaded blue-and-white tail fin. Around this intriguing creature's torso Ramos painted fish with human faces, darting about in an underwater cityscape of high rises framed by soaring waves. This was a treasure chest whose value resided in the way the artist bore the tragic, yet multifaceted, destiny of her nation.

The ocean and the struggle of some Cubans to cross it into freedom repeatedly figured here, in works laced with ambiguity. Two small pieces, Arms Swinging and Without Illusions, poignantly portrayed this choice. In the first, a small chest lay open to reveal wooden dolls as swimmers: one, attached to the inside of the lid, was a male encircled by sharks; the other, fastened to the bottom of the chest, was a female surrounded on three sides by hills fashioned out of green beads suggesting a distant shore. Both swimmers appeared as a slice of body between blue waves, each cutting through the water with a wooden arm. Written above the two figures - like the words used in an ex-voto painting - is the bitter phrase "to live deceived", as if the two were either swimming an ill-fated journey or escaping from an ill-fated existence, or perhaps both.

Without illusions made the futility of escape even more explicit. Inside a worn blue valise sprawled a small wooden doll painted in the colours of the Cuban flag, its eyes obviously sightless and its mouth agape. The figure has expired on the sandy ocean floor amid trailing seaweed and fish also painted in the Cuban national colours. The work is a painful expression of sunken hopes.

Ramos's art reverberates because it is neither all political nor all personal. It is at the same time seductive and deeply unsettling. Her talent lies in her ability to create original images while arresting the viewer with a fusion of private and public dramas.

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