Blackest, Queerest Life: Conversation with Andre Ramos-Woodard

October 4, 2020

Get help. 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard

 

Introduction

Sometimes you meet a person and there’s an inescapable feeling, somehow that stranger is kin to you. Somehow you recognize them, in an almost impossible way. I’m not saying I believe in multiple lives or reincarnation. But I do think it’s possible to recognize, in a complete stranger, the kind of familiarity that we feel instantly towards those we count as family, as familial. André Ramos-Woodard is a knower of people and stories and ways of making that extend past certain insecurities that we as humans recognize as universal. Ramos-Woodard also exposes narratives and injustices focused on race and queerness that are unrepresented. Through him blackness and queerness meet and divulge in a manner that is vulnerable and fearless.

The life that lives in the works Ramos-Woodard makes are unstoppable because he embodies a desire and need to be genuine, to be known and to know. There are words that spill over into an artist’s practice and make it rich and embellished. These words are without need to impress others, but their need exists to be heard. Taking time with these works and with the artist is eye opening and engaging. Many of us, white folks especially, including myself, want to feel that we are open and awake. The truth is another life is in many ways unknowable. Taking time and listening close is what art does best. It’s what people who speak to each other hope to express and expose. André lives there and loves there and makes there. In a place that is his own, but is open for others to engage.

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Efrem Zelony-Mindell: Rather than be sticky about this lets hit the throttle. We can slow down later. You are important André. I don’t just mean that because you’re a unique individual and artist, you are, but I mean that the way you speak about your work is contrary to how, I feel, most artists think and speak about their work. From what I gather this work, that you make, is for you first and foremost. Tell me why that’s important to the work, why are you important to the work?

André Ramos-Woodard: Thank you so much, Efrem. It really does mean a lot to me that you consider what I do important. Like you’ve said, it’s incredibly important to me that my work is genuine to my personhood.

The reality is that even today, whether it be in the city I live in or within the bubble that is the “art world”, there are not always spaces made for me to authentically exist. When we look back at the history of the Black experience and the queer experience in this country (and the world, honestly), both are riddled with discrimination at the hands of the oppressor—the privileged, cis-gendered, straight white men. I do not fit within this category of people who are handed privilege at birth, but I am constantly compared to those same people. By default, my objective reality is different. The way I see it, it’s important for me to share the personal and communal injustices that I face in my opinion for three main reasons:

1) to inform my audiences that there’s more to art than nude white bodies and straight photos,

2) to cope with and shed light on my experience as a marginalized person, and

3) to personally celebrate that fact that I’m tryna live my best, Blackest, queerest life.

 

Untitled (LIVE LAUGH LOVE), 2019. © Andre Ramos-Woodard

 

not racially motivated, 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

EZ-M: WOW! Rip our hearts out why don’t you André?! This answer begins to embody my total fascination with your work and the way you talk about it. You allow text and illustration to sink into your work, along with photography, the same way you speak on things. So you leads to us, if I’m following you correctly. By exposing yourself, your reality, your lived experience, and imbuing your art with all these personal elements it leaves room for others to let themselves in as well as hear your side of things.

Take us back a bit, your creative path isn’t so straight and narrow as I recall. Seeing your work thrive the way it currently does, with so many elements all meeting together, it’s curious how you came to make work the way you are. What brought you to this point where you find yourself enrolled in the MFA photography department at the University of New Mexico making these scrappy, loose, and incredibly poignant mixed media works?

AR-W: Exactly!! I mean, I’m interested in the way people read my work, especially pieces that visualize a deeply personal experience. How much can someone relate to me through something I make or say? Psh, ionkno. That’s not really a question I can answer since it’s so dependent on the other person, but the question is always in my head.

Girl, that’s a funny story. When I got to The University of New Mexico in 2018, I was fresh outta my undergrad at Lamar University. I came into the MFA program here working on a body of work called “I understand how you feel.”, a series of “straight” photographs I was making. While I was at Lamar, I was constantly creating heavily digitally-manipulated imagery, so I thought making some more traditional photographs would be a nice challenge. Making these images, studying contemporary images, reading about images… God, it all got so boring after only one semester! I completely put photography behind me during my second semester and I only made drawings–a medium I had never explored in my own practice. Man, it was eye-opening. Taking my artistic aspirations and applying it to a medium I wasn’t used to was probably the best thing that could have happened for my art. The sort of naivety I experienced with drawing while still thinking critically about what I want to express helped me to come back to the photographic medium with fresh eyes. I started to break down some of the walls I had subconsciously built up around what my work could and could not be. At this point, I’m trying to let my work manifest in whatever way seems fitting and to do what feels best in the moment.

 

The N-Word, 2018. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

An abstraction of 2 niggas, 2019. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

EZ-M: I’m going to give you a bit of a hard time here on two things. How much do you find yourself relating to something an artist makes or says? And take us back further than that. Did art start at home? Did you pick it up from somewhere? Let’s get a little deep here, how did art making start for you?

AR-W: It’s pretty rare when I find myself relating to someone else’s work at a personal level, honestly. But then I think about how much art I see and I guess that makes sense. People have different reasons for making, and come from tons of different backgrounds, with all sorts of different inspirations. There’s no way I could relate to it all. But there are some that I have had such a personal response to… I don’t know, I’ll just never forget. And on a side note, I’ma throw shade: I bet I would relate a bit more often to the work I was seeing if the art world chose to accurately and more commonly represent marginalized artists of color.

And ooh, so we goin’ ALL the way back? Well, I was really into drawing when I was a kid. I was lil’ nerd deep into anime (still am) and so was my cousin, so we’d spend our time watching Dragonball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokemon, and then redrawing those characters. We’d be on the computer for hours looking at illustrations, most of the time on a website called DaBlackGoku.com. Hmm, I never really thought about how pivotal looking through that specific website was–looking through fan-made Dragonball characters that looked like me! I mean, I’m no Super Saiyan, but these artists were redrawing some of my favorite anime characters to have the same Black skin I have! I’m telling you I was hooked. From then on out I knew art was my thing. Also, I’m lucky to have parents and family members that encouraged me and my cousin’s artistic aspirations. Both of us constantly got asked by family members to show them our latest work.

My interest in art grew in high school when I took a photography class against my will. I wanted to take “art”, but since that was filled up I was shoved into a photography class. I HATED IT. I hated learning all the technical elements of a camera, ‘cause my 16-year-old ass just wanted to make “art”. My childhood pretty much repeated itself when I found Flickr and my definitions of art and photography started to intertwine. I literally would come home from school during the end of my sophomore year in high school and just look at photographs for hours. I’d go outside, make some not-so-good photos that I was super stoked about at the time, and then come back inside to look at more photos.

 

nappy, 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

My fellow Americans, 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

EZ-M: No tea no shade baby, if the shoe fits, as they say, wear it. Speak your mind! I don’t think it’s rocket science at all that if there was more representation there would be more audience, there would be more conversation, maybe there’d even be more availability. Perish the thought of giving more and gaining more for everyone. Working . . . together? Bizarre I know. It also sounds to me like you do relate, but not to the work itself. It sounds to me like the camaraderie some feel towards things artists make is a response you have to knowing people and sharing the making and looking at art with them. So the relation, dare I say, the effect it has on you happens in a relationship with someone else on the way to a work of art which turns the system of art on its head doesn’t it? Could you imagine if the art world was a place where interactions and sharing with others was the focus, and the resulting object was just a byproduct, but the path to the object was just as much, if not more, the art.

I’ve been reading a lot of interviews and I think a pretty common question artists are getting asked right now is something to the tune of, “Where do you hope we’re going?” or “What changes do you think are going to come out of this time we’re all living in?” In the spirit of turning systems on their heads I’m curious to ask you, what do you think isn’t going to be learned in this moment we’re all living in? What do you think we might miss or overlook? Isn’t it possible that we could just go right back to fucking everything up and business as usual?

AR-W: I fucking wish that was the case. I have actually been thinking a lot about that the past few days as I prepare for my advancement exam (wish me luck baby ‘cause I always get nervous as hell at those sort of things) and dive into making my thesis work. I’m incredibly appreciative of the support I get from friends, family, colleagues… ya know, people. But, I want people to see this work for more than just the fact that I’m obligated to give a talk and have a show to graduate. The body of work is tied to the African-American experience and I want people to get something from that–I want people to consider what I am saying with what I’m doing. People just need to take some time and consider the experiences of those that don’t exist within their bubbles of identity. *rolls eyes* It ain’t that hard.

Who you tellin’?? I get really worried about things returning to whatever “normal” was in January of this year. A lot of people fall into the trap of complacency, and if too many people move on from our national recognition of injustice towards BIPOC and the working class, we goin’ RIGHT back to where we started. I fear that we are not going to learn from history! How many times have oppressed peoples had to shout in the streets in order to get anything done for them? For the people in power to listen? How many times are we going to allow police officers to get away with murder on the basis of “fear”? Let my Black ass try to say “I got scared so I killed ‘em” in court and see what happens. We cannot get complacent and we cannot settle. We deserve more.

 

sisters, 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

WEAPON, 2019. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

EZ-M: Oof! She puts her thing down and it smells like TRUTH! Sending you all the luck on your advancement exam henny, but you don’t need it. Your institution needs you. The art world needs you.

To me when you talk about people in their bubble I think it comes down to, if we could boil it down to one thing which we can’t really, but one thing it comes down to is, a lack of curiosity. Capitalism baby. Feed me my big screen television and my Big Mac and my phone with the flashy lights and just leave me the fuck alone. I don’t think we’re trained to be excited about trying something we’ve never done or being excited about research on something we don’t understand, or god forbid, that we don’t know. I’m going to quote Marilyn Manson here, “I just think that we’re raised to feel very guilty for being ourselves.” And I’m going to take that a step further and say that Americans—white folks specifically—and by association the institution that is white American society, are raised to feel NOTHING over what we’ve done and what our history against folx of other races and genders is. It’s a lack of curiosity and a lack of drive to know, thyself. How do you get curious about things?

AR-W: YES baby, we ain’t got time to play no games! Capitalism ain’t helpin’ us in the grand scheme of things. Capitalism is selfish, capitalism is inherently anti-Black… Capitalism fucking blows! You’re so right. From birth we are separated into specific boxes based on our physical traits and cultural histories, and all of this is against our will. These boxes open and close doors for us throughout our lives. I mean, there’s positively a hierarchy to these “boxes”, right? Just ‘cause people say things are equal or write that they are equal doesn’t make them equal. Equality is significantly more than a doctrine or an idea. People are so complacent and content in their privileges that they don’t even care to try to learn more about the world around them–about the boxes that they will never truly be able to enter. All they know is to work that 9 to 5 and to get that paycheck, rather than diving into their true aspirations and intentions. That’s such a mediocre way of going about human existence. Then again, we have to play a part in this capitalistic society if we want to get some of the things we in truth are entitled to as human beings (shelter, food, etc). It’s all fucked.

It’s kind of hard to answer what makes me curious. I am a person who likes to learn, and I’m also a lil’ stubborn, so I like to get things done myself. My stubbornness probably helps me approach new ideas and subjects with an open mind, ‘cause I’m always trying to prove to myself that I can do it–that I can do that something. But also, I feel a responsibility to inform myself about this world. I’m trying my best to take off my blinders and really be open to the experiences of other people. Ya know, I’m out here searching for it. I’m trying to find ways to inform myself about history, about indigenous peoples and the stolen land we live on, different aspects of different cultures, my family history, different mediums of art, etc… so I’m curious and stubborn, but I also think I should be trying to use whatever privileges I have to learn more and speak for those that cannot speak for themselves.

 

Where can I lay my head?, 2019. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

Lightskin Nigga, 2019. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

 

EZ-M: Ok bb this has been lovely, but I think I’m gonna close us out here with one last hit. It’s a bit hoaky, but I like it because it’s capable of being deeper than it seems. If you could have one thing in the entire world, what would it be?

AR-W: Oh shit!! Hmm.. damn, I’m over here pondering the definition of “thing” in this context too critically to even consider what the thing should be! Okay, okay.

If I could have one thing amongst all things that can be defined as a “thing” in this universe, it would be to speak to my Grandparents again and catch them up on how much I’ve grown since they last saw me.

EZ-M: Why is that the thing you would choose?

AR-W: It’s just the thing that would make me the happiest at this moment. Everything I do is for my loved ones. It’s the reason I am so invested in my family archive, and why I enjoy using friends and family in my work. I want them to know that I’m okay, and I’m doing what I love in life—being an artist.

 

melodrama, 2020. © Andre Ramos-Woodard.

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Bio

Raised in the Southern states of Tennessee and Texas, André Ramos-Woodard is a contemporary artist who uses their work to emphasize the repercussions of contemporary and historical discrimination. Primarily working with photo-based collage, text, and drawing, they convey ideas of communal and personal identity centralized within internal conflicts. Ramos-Woodard is influenced by their direct experience with life – he is queer and African-American, both of which are obvious targets for discrimination. They use their art to accent spaces of both communal understanding and disconnect between them and the viewer, specifically those of Black liberation, queer justice, and those in positions of power and privilege that lack the information to critically recognize problems within minority groups in contemporary culture. Ramos-Woodard received his BFA from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and is currently pursuing his MFA at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

@andreduane  / andreramoswoodard.com

efremzm.com

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