Cuban in a Suitcase

Sandra Ramos is part of a generation of Havana artists whose visual language makes frequent reference to the dream and reality of exile. Her work, both conceptually clever and affectively sincere, often takes the form of suitcases or trunks, containing what the artist calls "a compilation of the experiences, dreams, disappointments, and illusions of Cuban emigrants." In an artist's statement sent from Havana, Ramos explains that her art is "a way of making public the private life and social reality of the Cuban people.

"My work is a reflection on the specific reality of my country," notes Ramos, who was born in 1969 and educated at Havana's Superior Institute of Art. "For this reason, the fundamental motive of my work is to recover the social or individual memory ... the feelings of frustration related to the phenomena of the death of Utopia, and the crisis of the liberating socialist ideals are also present."

Ramos, whose multimedia exhibition "Heritage of a Fish" opens Saturday at Casas Riegner Gallery in the Design District, has frequently ventured around the world to attend shows of her work, giving her a personal perspective on the subject of travel, particularly departing from Cuba. She sees the suitcase as "a symbol of the contradiction between the impossibility of having complete control over one's life and the longing or the illusion of traveling, or emigration, as a solution to one's personal problems." Since 1994 Ramos has created wooden valises with detailed paintings inside, and suitcases in the shape of planes, coffins, and other objects. She has also created large room-size installations in the form of suitcases. These rooms that, by virtue of their décor, may appear to belong to adults or children, are filled with appropriate personal belongings. With these works Ramos alludes to the fact that, for an emigrant, a suitcase holds the vestiges of one's former identity as well as of the family home.

Self-portraits have also been frequent motifs in Ramos's art. "I use the self-portrait as a device to meditate on the fact of having been born on an island where collective history and personal destiny are closely related," she explains. In one series, she employed a character whom she describes as a cross between herself, Alice in Wonderland, and the image of a Dutch princess to relate episodes of the recent history of her country. These illustrated anecdotes included jineteras (prostitutes), bureaucrats, and other familiar Havana characters.

Water is a common material in Ramos's more recent work. A series of working aquariums -- complete with live fish, as well as painted dolls and other objects -- are symbolic of the balseros' (rafters) fate at the bottom of the ocean, and the new, perhaps enchanted, world they might inhabit in the afterlife. Other large-scale installations incorporate water and video scenes of Havana street life.

"Water," Ramos notes, "is a naturally determinating element in the destinies of my country."

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Judy Cantor