About Roy Ferdinand

Self-taught artist Roy Ferdinand (1959-2004) chronicled life on the backstreets of New Orleans in the years before Hurricane Katrina. Composed on poster board with drug store art materials—ink pens and markers, colored pencils, and children’s water colors—his work offers realist portraits of the city’s distinct African American neighborhoods.

Ferdinand, who died at age 45, often drew on events he saw firsthand, heard about, or read in the pages of the local newspaper. Addressing issues such as gun violence and crime, income inequality, drugs and the war on drugs, he balanced hard hitting scenes with softer portraits, such as “Popeye the Skateboard King,” which perhaps worked as emotional outlets. “Popeye was a kid who lived in my mom’s old neighborhood,” he once explained. “The expression he’s got is saying this isn’t exactly how he expected his life to turn out.”

Ferdinand lived through the troubled era portrayed in his art, a period from the late 1980s through the 90s, when New Orleans had the nation’s highest murder rate, the city suffered through a national crack cocaine epidemic, and struggled with an often astoundingly corrupt police force. A sometimes hard-nosed empathy is at the heart of his vision. “Roy’s best pieces are allegorical statements,” said Los Angeles philanthropist and art collector Gordon W. Bailey, who owns a large collection of Ferdinand’s work. “Whether or not he personally observed all he created, he bore constant witness.”

In his own too short life, Roy Ferdinand personally struggled with substance abuse and periods of homelessness. While often noted for his unflinching depictions of dark subject matter, Ferdinand’s New Orleans is an epic of subtle complexities, told one drawing at a time, a tableau that includes humor, eccentricity, faith, and much love. His huge body of work—some 2,000 drawings scattered among private collections and museums across the country—also explores the larger African American experience, including a series on the life of Malcolm X, and a collection of portraits of fellow southern Outsider Artists.

“To me he was fearless and that was his strength,” said Willie Birch, a nationally prominent African-American artist, also from New Orleans. “Something about his madness and form forces you to see things in different ways. Roy is one of the artists I feel closest too in terms of trying to say something about our existence.”

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