151 Precious Johnson-Arabitg working as VODKASERENGETI

Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1982 \ BA University of Chicago \ MA University of Illinois – Springfield \ Lives in Detroit

There’s a mysterious but exciting energy in the images created by Precious Johnson-Arabitg, known artistically as VODKASERENGETI. Her performance-based compositions have a strong and fearless nature that arrest the eyes at a glance and draw the observer into the scene. 

Often turning the camera on herself, VODKASERENGETI describes her visual voice with expressive terms like out there, weird, disruptive, uncomfortable, and shocking. A scroll through her Instagram page (@vodkaserengeti)–home to her bold images– complements her self-assessment. In a ghostly diptych, VODKASERENGETI becomes Persona Non Grata (2017), an allegorical figure who, in this set, instructs the observer to “make space to mourn past selves, lost selves, fictional selves.” The character appears, she says, in a state of limbo where there’s difficulty in processing and coping with things unsaid and unaddressed – “individually and collectively as a nation.” Each transitional state calls for an enlightened consciousness and allows rebirths to take form.

The triptych Untitled (2020), in which VODKASERENGETI appears as a mysterious, alien-like figure, was influenced by the teachings of Ram Dass (1931-2019), an American spiritual leader popularly known for his book Be Here Now, which is credited for helping launch the mindfulness revolution in the 1970s. The imagery, coupled with Dass’s ideologies, references the philosophical and spiritual concept of “isness” studied in Zen Buddhism. It’s a state of being that speaks to a heightened awareness of the moment and existing as something. The deep black-and-white scene feels as if the figure is floating, and there’s something blissful resting in the wanderlust of being. 

Buddhism and meditation deities have an underlying presence in VODKASERENGETI’s work; she credits them with  bringing her to “a stronger sense of intention and empowerment.”  Nairatmya, a deity who symbolizes the absence of selfhood, informs the concept and costuming aesthetic in Make Believe (2021), where the artist’s intent is to shed worldly expectations. She made the giant cycloptic head to avert attention from facial features and rid ego and quasi-fictional self-representation. Here, the focus shifts to connecting with a life and being that are not, the artist says, “contingent on external acceptance of whatever parts we’ve learned to play really well in this elaborate theater production of life.” 

This kind of theatrical staging in Make Believe and Persona Non Grata is reminiscent of artistic techniques used in works by Cindy Sherman–who poses as various characters to critique female roles defined by society– and Jeff Wall, a pioneer in the staged photography genre, known for his large-scale collaborative scenes that appear to be in-the-moment shots but are actually prepped. In this way, VODKASERENGETI uses character or various versions of self as a vehicle to comment on society and the mysteries of existence. 

Lately, the artist has been trusting her intuition to allow a natural flow of creation. This transfers into her relationship with the objects that frequent her body of work. The freedom in this approach allows the thing to have agency and inform her of how it should be used. Her attraction to abandoned spaces, vacant buildings and available resources discovered on drives throughout Detroit led to the scene-setting in The Water Bearer (2021), a contemplative image that satisfied her desire to work in the snow, but also invites us to visualize our lives embodying the adaptation and transformational properties of water. She created the jewel-embellished mask with a mirror-like essence to convey the reflective qualities of water and human life. 

“Everything I needed for the picture to come together was already there. The old-school washing machine, the pillow I’m sitting on,” she says. “Abandoned spaces [physically and metaphorically] still have something to offer.”

A sense of liberation is felt in Despojo (Spanish for dispossession) (2021), which depicts the artist sitting nude amid a burned-down building in Detroit. Taken the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the emotional impact, for the artist, represents a heavy cleansing and “rising from the ashes” – for the nation and the city. She says, “There’s something so poignant about something coming apart for so long…going through this shift. Perhaps, it’s part of Detroit, the rising phoenix. There was a beaming energy [that drew me to this area]…that we’re trying to change something [and] maybe that’s how we get to that pure essence that something new might bloom again. ”

VODKASERENGETI’s art defies self-limitations and celebrates the diversity of becoming. Her image-making is an invitation for the viewer to explore our varied selves and welcome rebirth. It can be terrifying. But the unknowing and searching to discover is worth the trip. 

LaToya Cross, March 2021

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