André Ramos-Woodard on art-making as a survival strategy

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This article is the first in a mini-series, In Search of Ourselves. We speak to three artists – Ana Vallejo, Bowei Young and Andre Ramos-Woodard – about vulnerability and trauma, and how they use the camera to gain a better understanding of themselves. 

The artist’s hybrid images blend photography, text and collage, describing the turbulence of being young, Black and queer in America

“I didn’t think it was going to hurt like that,” says André Ramos-Woodard recalling their move from Beaumont, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for graduate school. “I went from a place that has so many Black people to a city that was 3 per cent Black. ​​​​It was weird to acknowledge that these individuals would never be able to understand what it means to be Black in America.” 

Without the steady anchor of home life, the Texas-based artist was forced to confront the violence of white supremacy without the support system they had come to depend on. At that moment, art-making became more than a mode of exploration and expression – it became a survival strategy. One that offered safe harbour to confront brutal truths, allowing the artist to both unravel Black mythologies perpetuated by a white world and celebrate Black thought, consciousness and desire.

What am I supposed to do now, Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.
Miss me with the microaggressive bulls hit, Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.
Amerikkan flag Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

In Untitled (LIVE LAUGH LOVE), three young children are huddled together. It’s the archetypal family photo: matching outfits, toothy grins, unmistakable marble backdrop. By design, it demands nostalgia; a longing for simpler times when identity is validated by the very act of family picture-making. In those early years of life, images like this are often empowering evidence of who we are, individually and as a unit. Ramos-Woodard complicates this history by revealing just a slice of the original image pinned on twee floral fabric. The faces are pixelated enough to conceal identity while allowing us to trace the smiles within. The image, part of their project ​​A Mediocre-Ass Nigga, is a portal to the love and safety of familiar relationships while describing the emotional untethering in deep depression and isolation.

Ramos-Woodard acknowledges photography’s violent history and harnesses a mixed-media approach where the photograph is simply an “entry point”. Their process aligns more with sculpture, blending text, drawing, collage and image-making. This creates a hybrid language that illustrates the messy trauma of living with complexity and depth, which one visual language alone can struggle to articulate.

Where can I lay my head, Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.
Get help, Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.
Weapon, Untitled (Live Laugh Love) © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

The artist is not interested in making you feel comfortable. Their practice is a disarming portrait of interiority that describes the turbulence of being young, Black and queer in America. They believe intrinsically that to change reality, we need to change the way reality is represented, and they do this by confronting difficult truths about who we are and how we live, now and then. Unlike many of their peers, their work does not attempt to create a utopia in the present. Instead, they do the difficult work of ruminating on the positive and negative, making uncertainty and vulnerability their guiding principles.

Using their life as the primary material, Ramos-Woodard animates the tension between Black joy and violation. They urgently emphasise not simply the importance of reflecting reality in all its complexity but what it means to be seen. “It’s so healing for me,” says Ramos-Woodard. “Especially when I’m suffering the most”.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.