In the labyrinth of identity

by Laura De Marco

In the labyrinth of identity

Ramya by Petra Stavast is a delicate and profound work that enters you step by step. It’s not like love at first sight, it requires dedication: just like Stavast had in following and trying to rebuild, for a period of thirteen years, the plots of life of a woman thirty years older than herself. They met in circumstances created specifically by chance. Routine like events in a person’s life, such as moving to a new city, represent opportunities for transformation and growth, that are fundamental stages of life.

It all began in 2001 when Stavast rented a room in Amsterdam in the apartment of a woman named Anneke, better known as Ramya. The artist started, with fake permission of the landlady, photographing the rooms of the particular and luminous house, slowly approaching the figure of her elusive owner. Ramya is absent for long periods of time and even when living with Petra, her presence is unconventional. With little reluctance on Ramya part, Stavast starts to portray her, that over time will be decisive for bringing the two women together. A friendship arises that will last for over ten years, until 2012, the year of Ramya’s death. This is not the end of the story, it is then, in fact, that Stavast comes into possession of a body of images, stories and testimonies, which will become an integral part of her final work.

In 2014 the book and exhibition Ramya arose, which deepened the work with the use of other materials, such as original folders and video’s. Due to a mere reconstruction of facts and events, the work reveals its true nature to a deeper analysis: that of a love story on different levels. The most obvious is that of an unusual friendship between the two women, which drives Stavast to decide to make the existence of Ramya immortal, giving her the role of protagonist in her artistic work. The most profound, that of Ramya’s unconditional love for life, is represented by the constant search for one’s own identity and the sense to attribute to the choices that are made every day and influence the journey of life.
The observer of Ramya is asked to enter a world made of repeated glances on minimal and unaware gestures, of traces stratified along the course of time, of clues that seem to lead nowhere and pieces that may not be enough to rebuild the complexity of the puzzle you have in front of you.
To understand Ramya, it is not important to reconstruct a precise chronology of her life, but rather to be guided by the progression of intersecting temporal lines in search of answers, expressions, gesture or details that can increase our knowledge.
Ramya is the attempt to reconstruct the versatility of a person’s life.
Through a tangle of images of different origins and nature, texts, recovered notes and testimonies of people close to the protagonist. You look at a life lived intensely, that several people have tried to understand, but has most likely remained intrinsically imprisoned in the mind of the protagonist until the end.
Is it really possible to reconstruct a person’s identity – and what is the ultimate meaning of such an operation? Ramya reveals itself to be a search for a second identity: Stavast searches Ramya and through Ramya we end up looking for ourselves. As if looking in the mirror, we find ourselves naked in front of the endless possibilities of definition of our “I” and its many facets. Through Ramya we remember how each of us is committed to building our identity every day, probably not like her, by living in the community of an Indian guru and by attending courses of “selfhelp”, but in ways that are very similar to these. If not in appearance, certainly in substance.
Ramya’s life appears to us as unusual, but is it really? Perhaps the protagonist of Stavast’s work has simply tried to find several ways to respond to the questions we all ask ourselves.
Stavast’s sensitivity lies in being able to put together the different strands of Ramya’s life (intimacy, spirituality, interpersonal problems etc), without any pretension of exhaustiveness or punctual reconstruction of facts and, above all, without judgment. Stavast leaves us the possibility of deciding whether wanting to enter the labyrinth of this story, leaving us free to extricate ourselves within the mesh of the story, or to remain permanently trapped.

Petra saw her initial fascination for this mysterious woman turn into a real obsession, and even in this case the reading of Petra Stavast’s work should be done at a double level: there is an obsession with Stavast towards Ramya and Ramya’s obsessions towards life.
In Ramya the complicated plots of a relationship between photographer and the photographed are weaved, raising questions about identity, life and observation.
Looking for the identity of Ramya, is like looking for our complex perennial search for who we are, what we d and why we are here.

Ramya, in the end, could be each of us.