Rashida Ferdinand recalls her childhood days sculpting the earth in the backyard of her New Orleans home—with the sky, trees, and soil as her palette and inspiration. “Clay is a living organism with transformative qualities,” she reminds us, “changing from one form to another when fire hits it.” Transformation and spiritual containment have always been themes in her sculptural vessels, and those same themes can also be found in her community-based work in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For Ferdinand, her work as an artist goes beyond a studio practice to include her commitment to the art and practice of restoring and beautifying spaces in her community.
The spirit vessels Ferdinand created during her formative college years served as representations of physical and spiritual containment. Sculpted faces push through bulbous vessels and anthropomorphic forms or peek out from openings. The forms behind those openings suggest some secret or hidden place, evoking a feeling of peace and contemplation. Depending on her firing method, the finished surface will vary. When pit firing, she uses terra sigillata to burnish the surface. When salt firing at low-fire temperatures, she applies stains and washes to the outer surface. These varied results offer a tactile quality, like stone or the textured bark of a tree.
Ferdinand was first introduced to the ceramic arts in the mid 1990s as a student at Howard University in Washington, DC, where she majored in ceramics under the tutelage of Winnie Owens-Hart. She recalls the ceramics studio there as an intimate space where she could explore different approaches to sculpting, handbuilding, and firing. Ferdinand then went on to do her graduate work at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, where she was inspired by the thought-provoking narrative and conceptual work of Carrie Mae Weems, the environmental installations of Andy Goldsworthy, and the sculptural installations of Do Ho Suh. At this time, Ferdinand began constructing installation exhibitions of her larger tree and root forms that represent spaces of renewal. These were shown in several national and international galleries and museums, including the Smithsonian National African American History and Culture Museum in Washington, DC, and Galerie Lafayette in Martinique. Currently, her Mandala sculpture, commissioned by the Art Council and Joan Mitchell Foundation, is publicly installed in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
Ferdinand constructs her vessels and sculptures using a coiling technique from Ipetumodu, Nigeria, that was taught to her by Owens-Hart, who spent years studying in the Ipetumodu pottery village. The technique involves rolling very soft coils directly in one’s hands, attaching the coils to the top inner wall of the pot, and then pinching upward while walking around the pot. A joint coil is then placed on the outside while walking in the opposite direction. This technique reinforces and balances the pot in both directions, giving more integrity to the form. This way of constructing differs drastically from Western coiling techniques, where we remain stationary while turning the pot on a banding wheel. Western potters who try the Nigerian coiling technique often describe it as revolutionary. Rather than objectifying the pot by turning it in front of us, the pot becomes an extension of us as more of our physical presence is engaged. It’s this same level of attention and engagement that is required to restore land or a community, two things Ferdinand cares deeply about.
A New Calling
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Ferdinand, like so many others, was forced to evacuate. She temporarily relocated to Atlanta, unable to return home for another year and a half. Once she was back, she recalls, “I didn’t feel comfortable going back to making pots with the condition my community was in.” She soon realized she was being called to apply her skills in another direction, toward redevelopment efforts. She had always been interested in community arts and business management, taking business and economics classes and working on community-arts projects during her time at Howard. She says, “Building, transforming, and helping to create healthy, just, and equitable spaces is at the core of what being an artist is.” Tapping into what her community needed after Katrina felt in direct alignment with her artistic values: to give, to care, and to create.
Out of her community’s urgent need, and with support from the Lower Ninth Ward residents and stakeholders, Ferdinand founded Sankofa Community Development Corporation (CDC)(sankofanola.org), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, in 2008. Their mission is to help build healthy communities for generations to come by working with residents and other stakeholders to identify locally felt social challenges and address them in thoughtful, culturally competent ways, focusing their efforts on health-centered approaches to community and economic development. Sankofa is a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that means “retrieve” (literally “go back and get”: san means to return; ko means to go; fa means to fetch, to seek and take). Sankofa is typically symbolized by a bird with its head turned backward while its feet face forward, carrying a precious egg in its mouth. It reminds us to take what is good from the past and carry it into the future to effect positive change.
Community Redevelopment and Fresh Food Access
Serving as Sankofa’s executive director, Ferdinand worked alongside her neighbors to identify the community’s most urgent needs. Access to healthy food was at the top of the list. The first order of business was to create the Sankofa Marketplace, a monthly hub and cultural space for local growers, musicians, chefs, merchants, and artists. The organization has continued to grow over the years, expanding its services to include a weekly farmers market, community garden, and fresh-food pantry in the Lower Ninth Ward to provide further access to nutritious food and spaces to sustainably grow produce. Healthy cooking and gardening education programs are also offered.
Ferdinand says recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward area of New Orleans since Katrina has been slow and inconsistent. Sankofa CDC has been doing its part to improve protection from future hurricanes and flooding by developing the Sankofa Wetland Park and Nature Trail starting in 2017. For this long-term recovery project, in partnership with the City of New Orleans and Coastal Protection Restoration Authority, Sankofa has employed a team of wetland ecologists and landscape architects to restore a 40-acre wetland area to its natural habitat for the purposes of environmental education, recreation, and economic development in the area. Individuals can sponsor trees, or volunteer to help maintain trails and install native plants. Sankofa CDC is also working with the New Orleans Arts Council to bring creative installations by additional artists into the Wetland Park. Ferdinand is excited about the potential for this site, which is projected to be completed by the end of 2022.
Connecting to the Natural World
Ferdinand has been working closely with Sankofa CDC’s community partners, landscape architects, and wetland ecologists to envision what the land might become, creating a space for nature to heal. She calls it “sculpting the land.” One surprise has been the discovery of a vast supply of clay in the Wetland Park. It’s synchronistic, coinciding with Ferdinand’s desire to dedicate more time in her ceramics studio. She feels like the universe is telling her, “Here is this abundance for you.” She’s been storing the clay as it’s excavated, and letting the ideas for how to use it incubate. During her college years, Ferdinand taught community-based arts classes to children and adults. Now she’s back to teaching and incorporates both the Ipetumodu coiling technique and the wetland clay in her community classes. She can also imagine her own future ceramic sculptures as outcroppings among the Wetland Park’s trees and wildflowers.
The Wetland Park will bring economic development to the area, serve as a place where children can be in nature, support the retention of water, and manage floodwater overflow. Sankofa CDC is co-leading a green-jobs workforce development program at the Wetland Park that will offer horticulture training and green-infrastructure skills. It’s rewarding for Ferdinand to see nature being restored by these efforts. She is already witnessing the recovery of animal habitats, with diverse bird, mammal, reptile, fish, and insect species—including perch, bass, catfish, bullfrogs, whistling ducks, egrets, ibis, alligators, otters, rabbits, bats, and coyotes returning to the site. “There’s a poetry in the way the birds have been migrating back to the wetland,” she reflects. “It’s a place of refuge. So many life forms need the trees.”
Connection to the natural world has always been central to Ferdinand’s ceramic work, and it’s also what’s guiding her on the wetland project. “We’re very centered as humans about our needs and lives, but in nature, it’s not about us. We can connect if we choose to. Nature has its own power. It can teach us patience. We have to wait for a tree to grow. It doesn’t belong to us.”
Ferdinand has learned to appreciate what’s often hidden from view—much like the roots of a tree and the life happening beneath the soil’s surface. It’s this sense of what is unseen, but living, that allows her to envision the possibilities for her community as it heals. In the past, Ferdinand created installations of her sculptures, transforming gallery and museum spaces using constructed and found objects to create a world that others might enter. Now she’s content to go for a walk in the woods and be part of nature’s installation.
the author Susan McHenry, is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. To learn more, visit emptyvesselpottery.com or follow on Instagram @emptyvesselpottery.