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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 Sanchez 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.


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