In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 photo, patrons look at work by Cuban artist Manuel Mendive at the Studios of Key West in Key West, Fla. Mendive's work is on display as part of an exhibit that organizers say is the first exchange between Cuban and U.S. art museums in more than five decades. (AP Photo/Christine Armario)
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – Sandra Ramos has never wanted to emigrate from Cuba, but in her more than four decades on the island, she has seen many people leave.
Their absence resonates throughout her work. The image of her as a 10-year-old is plastered behind a wall of palm trees, trapped on the island. In another piece, her school girl's body lies across a gaping space in the middle of a bridge, trying to connect two separate lands.
"It's a perspective on immigration from those who stay," Ramos said.
Now, Ramos and other Cuban artists, all of whom were raised on the island and have launched international careers from there, are exhibiting their works in Key West. Organizers say it is the first exchange between Cuban and U.S. museums in more than five decades.
The exhibit is called "One Race" and was launched in Havana with a show featuring the work of the late Cuban-American artist Mario Sánchez at the flagship National Museum of Fine Arts in January. The Key West component opened Thursday and, in addition to the seven artists from Cuba, also includes the work of Xavier Cortada, an artist born in the U.S. to Cuban parents who is working with children in Florida to send drawings to young students on the island.
Collectively, the exhibit offers a unique vantage point of the Cuban experience — providing a glimpse of life in the U.S. through the eyes of Sanchez to viewers in Havana, and sharing the viewpoint of artists who grew up with the revolution to gallery-goers in Florida.
"I think what's important about this exhibit is precisely to get a more realistic view," Ramos said.
Among each other, the artists have explored the revolution that divided them not just with their art, but in words.
"I suffered," Cortada, who was born in New York, told Ramos at Thursday's opening. "I didn't have a homeland. I had parents who lost everything."
Ramos nodded, but pointed out that their experiences are different.
"I think here in the U.S. there's a very drastic view of the island," she said. "It's a vision from afar, and from stories of parents."
The exhibit is the brainchild of Nance Frank, a curator who lives and grew up in Key West, an island with strong historical ties to Cuba.
Frank visited Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts and approached curator Hortensia Montero about showing Sanchez's work. Sanchez was renowned for his woodcarvings depicting everyday life in Key West, and many of his pieces touch on the island's Cuban linkages. They also discussed bringing Cuban artists to Key West.
Montero said that in 38 years working as the museum's curator, no one had approached her with such an idea.
"To me it seemed important because he's an artist who is the son of Cubans and because his work reflects the idiosyncrasy of Cubans and our identity, translated to other lands," said Montero, adding that Sanchez's work was placed in the museum's Cuba collection.
Working together, they selected a half-dozen artists from Cuba who they say represent the island's diversity and some of its most important talent. In addition to Ramos, the exhibit features Manuel Mendive, an artist who both paints and arranges performance art that draws on Afro-Cuban traditions. He painted four dancers in Key West for the Thursday opening, their nude bodies covered in bright blue, red and white images of plants, animals and faces.
Painter and illustrator Roberto Fabelo, whose art explores the relationship between man and nature, also has his work on display. And an innovative group of three artists called The Merger, two of whom live in Cuba and the third in Miami, have crafted sculptures inspired by the life of Ernest Hemingway.
Many Cuban artists have been able to travel freely since the early 1990s, particularly to Canada and Europe. But Rachel Weiss, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, noted that now is a time of even greater aperture, where changes in Cuban travel laws are allowing artists to stay out of the island for longer periods of time. That, in turn, is impacting the conversations among artists and even the themes of their work.
"The kind of work that was so focused on what was happening in Cuba just doesn't make all that sense to make anymore, if you're showing it in galleries in Europe," she said.
Ramos herself is currently taking part in a six-month artist's residency in Miami. She said she feels not so much divided between Cuba and the U.S., two countries where she has many family and friends, as she does co-existing with a part of herself on each side.
"In life in general, not only in Cuba, one always has to be trying to surpass the limits," she said. "You have to overcome where you live, the boundaries around you."