I first heard of the visual artist Roy Ferdinand when I attended his one-man show In Your Fucking Face at Barrister’s Art Gallery (when it was still on Oretha Castle Haley) sometime in 2004, As the title of that show suggests, Ferdinand’s work is aggressively crude & transgressive, assembling a unique document of New Orleans at the height of the city’s fever pitch crime rates in the 90s & 00s. An self-taught, outsider artist along the lines of a Henry Darger or a Daniel Johnson, Ferdinand drew portraits of the city & its inhabitants at their most cruel & vulnerable moments. His art is somehow both immediately digestible & impossible to ever shake once seen. The imagery sticks with you in a deeply affecting way, both in its violence’s absurdity & honesty, despite a lack of honed technical skills you’d expect from a more traditionally trained artist.
Roy Ferdinand may have been a somewhat financially successful artist, but he’s far from a household name & information on his personal life is scarce at best. That’s why I was stoked to discover that a documentary about Ferdinand was screening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Fest. Super stoked. Indeed, Missing People was a rare chance to see interview footage of Roy Ferdinand talking about himself, his city, and his art. However, it was far from the film that I was I expecting. Instead of being a documentary about Ferdinand outright, Missing People follows the story of Martina Batan, an art collector & curator who obsessively amassed hundreds of Ferdinand’s pieces for reasons that even she had difficulty understanding. It would be incredible to see a documentary strictly about Ferdinand & his work, but Missing People is not that film. Instead, it serves as a document about the way his art can deeply affect someone in a personal way. And after seeing the film it’d be difficult to argue that it’s ever affected anyone nearly as much as it has Martina Batan.
Described by a close friend & comic book artist Dave Carino as “a cross between Wednesday Adams & Holly Golightly”, Martina Batan was once a young art student with a Joey Ramone haircut in NYC’s highly influential late 70s punk era. The polaroids depicting her energetic youth are a stark contrast with her current life as a middle age divorcee & professional art curator. Living alone with two elderly dogs in Brooklyn, NY, Baton is a deeply depressed, anxious soul, one that rarely sleeps or, ostensibly, enjoys herself. One thing that haunts Batan in an ever-increasing intensity is the decades-old violent stabbing death of her teenage brother, a tragedy that tore her family to shreds. One of the ways Batan processes her grief over the loss of her brother, of course, is through collecting Roy Ferdinand’s artwork.
Batan first discovered Ferdinand while volunteering in New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery shortly after the artist’s premature death in 2005. She soon became possessed with the task of collecting what she describes as “a greatest hits” of the artist’s work. Although Missing People is by no means a straight-forward documentary on Ferdinand & his art, it does feature hundreds of his pieces, by far the most I’ve ever seen, thanks to Batan’s tireless obsession as a collector. Besides the drawings, Batan also collected various ephemera from Ferdinand’s life, including a cowboy hat, boots, and unwashed socks Ferdinand’s two living sisters had entrusted to the owner of Barrister’s Gallery (a detail spookily echoed in Batan’s collection of her slain brother’s similar ephemera). Speaking of Ferdinand’s sisters, as a pair they offer one of the few points of insight into the deceased artists’ life & personality, outside stray interview footage of Roy in 1997, a few anecdotes from Barrister’s Gallery owner and, of course, the work itself. Roy’s sisters are particularly endearing in their dismissive laughter after hearing their brother describe himself as “an OG retired”. Whether or not roy was a certifiable “original gangster”, his self-declared role as a “journalist” & a “documentarian” that lead him to record “simple portraits of neighborhood characters” suggests that he at least had some kind of first hand experience with New Orleans’ crime element. As Roy himself puts it, he felt compelled to depict “guns, drugs, violence, and church” in his work because that’s what happens in a city where you constantly see “cops shooting at drug dealers, drug dealers shooting at cops, drug dealers shooting at each other.” Leave the scenic streams & meadows to the artists who live where that’s the reality. Although Roy’s sisters couldn’t corroborate his self-image of a “retired” hard criminal, they did admit that he often sold his paintings as a means to support his crack cocaine habit, saying “When he did his most eye-popping pieces, he was high as a kite.”
Not enough is really known about the “true” Roy Ferdinand to support a full-length documentary in the traditional sense (not that I wouldn’t love to see someone try). As one interviewee puts it, Roy was somewhat of a “performance artist”, adapting to many personas over the course of his lifetime: cowboy, voodoo practitioner, crack addict, fine artist, limo driver, French Quarter eccentric Chicken Man’s “official bodyguard”, etc. Although Missing People makes little to no attempt to offer a full portrait of the artist as a man, it does wonders to establish his role as a docuementarian. Roy explains the reasons he depicts the victims of horrible acts of violence is to preserve their likeness beyond being a mere headline in a news story. He says, “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would remember that these people existed.” Perhaps that sentiment is the essence of Martina Batan’s personal connection with Ferdinand’s work, seeing as how her long-deceased brother suffered a similar fate to many of Roy’s subjects, just in New York instead of New Orleans. The movie offers little in the way of answers.
As Martina struggles with her brother’s mysterious death, with her own failing health, and with an uneasy relationship with Roy’s sisters (who are justifiably suspicious & jealous of her collection of their brother’s work), Missing People paints a bleak, complicated picture. Much like Roy Ferdinand’s artwork, the documentary is painfully honest in an absurdly open, vulnerable way, refusing to play by the rules. Missing People documents the life of a great, little known artist not by offering a traditional biography, but instead focusing its attention on a few people still actively engaged with his work a decade after his passing. It works in the same way that Room 237 revealed a lot about the power of ambiguity in Kubrick’s The Shining by exploring the crackpot theories the film inspired instead of documenting the production of the film itself. As I said, as a fan of his work I would love to watch a proper, full-length documentary about Ferdinand (if that’s even possible), but that’s not at all what Missing People is aiming for. Instead, Roy is just the connective tissue in a story about the people living in his wake. It’s a bold & often frustrating choice, but in a lot of ways the film is more fascinating & satisfying for it.