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.
Born Ypsilanti, MI,1990 / BFA Eastern Michigan University; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Ypsilanti
To enter the photography of Ricky Weaver, first, take a breath. Hold it. Feel it. Float with it. Exhale.
This instruction steadies you for the type of meditation experienced when observing Weaver’s quiet but complex image-making. There’s a spiritual essence felt as the artist unpacks concepts of time, identity and lineage through photographs that pay homage to Black women who have come before, are with her today, and are of the next generation. Stylistically, her salute to them comes by way of the gold trim that frames each image (a tribute to her late grandmother’s black and gold-framed bedroom set) and quoted titles of her images, because, as the artist says of her work, “This is collective; it’s not just me.”
Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit
The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.
These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams.
Born 1992, Udaipur, India / BFA, American University in Dubai, UAE / MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Madison Heights, MI
Detroit-based multimedia artist Jetshri Bhadviya is profoundly concerned with technique. She’s lived much of her life steeped in it; entering her studio, you’re confronted by exquisite prints of her photographic work, crystalline recordings of her expansive, layered sound pieces, and (perhaps surprisingly, since she tends not to exhibit them) rows of well-executed oil paintings. Bhadviya grew up studying Kathak, a form of classical Indian dance. She is an avid student of history, religion, science, and gender. She is fluent in Hindi and English, and has studied Sanskrit.
But from this vast, rich education, Bhadviya has arrived at an understanding of technique’s dead end. Just as she’s hopped continents in pursuit of higher education and career, so has she sought to transcend the foundations of technical mastery to create a language, a practice, that is entirely hers. Bhadviya arranges archives of everyday sounds into staggering sonic maps, meticulously arranges signs in her still images to awaken ideas about gender, identity and place while uncannily canceling them out, and cloaks herself in swaths of confining fabrics for her performance work, crafting a balance between sophisticated and primordial, sensual and asexual, observant and blind.
Born Detroit, 1951 / BFA, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in in Huntington Woods, Michigan
For me the formation of the thought is already sculpture. (Joseph Beuys, 1969)
In 1978, a small portfolio of nine Barry Roth photos was published in the periodical Lightworks, #10. These tabletop images (including Day Sleep, 1975) were staged from Roth’s Palmer Park Detroit studio/apartment in the mid-1970s. Their intimate scale and dark theatricality worked discreetly with post-modern tropes such as self-identity, deconstructed narratives, pop-culture and historical references—and made them more disorienting and idiosyncratic. They presented interior landscapes that were new and radical.
Roth’s artistry was an unacknowledged rupture in traditional photography that challenged norms of tableaux representation. While studying for an MFA, Roth discovered his unique analytic style. “I liked street photography,” said Roth, “but wanted something I could do anytime. “I was attracted to photographers like Les Krims – who staged things, setting things up for the camera.” Roth centers his photography as the thing itself; photographing to see how something looked as a photograph, aligning his ideas with street photographer Gary Winogrand, who explained, “The photo is a thing in itself. And that’s what still photography is all about.” Photography as a “truth-telling” medium was rejected by Roth, who describes his process as image-making rather than image-taking.
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1984 / BA, Naropa University; MFA, International Center of Photography – Bard College / Lives in Detroit and New York
Self-described “media activist” Kate Levy uses her extensive place-based research to explore issues of social justice through video, photography, and artist books. A central concern of Levy’s practice is who does or does not have access to means of representation. Highly conscious of her privileged social, economic, and educational background, she is determined to create working relationships that transcend this – even when it means giving up elements of creative control. For example, the 51 minute film I Do Mind Dying (2017) – covering water affordability and shutoff issues in Detroit from 2014 to 2017 – was developed in collaboration with numerous grassroots and advocacy groups. During the work’s production, Levy distributed cameras to people who lived in neighborhoods with high levels of shutoffs, and the subsequent material was merged with Levy’s own footage in a collective editorial process. The result is an urgent, and multi-layered, work that combines on the ground reporting with revelatory research to create a damning indictment of the web of injustice that envelops many Detroit citizens – recounted in the words of people in the thick of the action. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1975 / BFA, College for Creative Studies, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
It makes sense that Nicola Kuperus was onstage at the Detroit Institute of Arts recently, running her big yellow vacuum up and down a strip of beige carpet. And that a few minutes later, her face obscured by a long, black wig, she started to play the vacuum, using an effects pedal to modulate and amplify its heavy roar. And that a few minutes after that, she pulled out a tall, pink vase and began to fill it, maniacally, with fake plants, while on a screen above her, another Kuperus appeared, dressed up and gesticulating like a cross between a magician, Laurie Anderson, and some faceless horror movie creep, and that that Kuperus had the same vase, which she began to slap with her white-gloved hand, asking it, over and over again, “Ya like that?”
Born Detroit, 1981/BA, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin/MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan/Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
Lauren Semivan’s enigmatic, tour de force black and white photographs—no color, no digital—are shot with an early 20th century, large-format, tripod-mounted camera. The realization of her mystifying tableaus entails sheets of film, reams of negatives, and even the use of a home darkroom. Semivan’s retardataire, hands-on practice is akin to other recent throwbacks that captivate millennials and boomers alike, including old fashioned acoustic instruments, vinyl, and flip phones.
Semivan’s images are, however, quintessentially contemporary inventions. Despite the cumbersome, antique equipment, her interdisciplinary mosaics of abstraction, process and performative procedures, staged (or set-up) scenes, and her pictorial perception of the oft thrumming tensions between conscious and subconscious states of mind, yield psychodramas at once rational and irrational. Her artist statements, albeit tinged with surrealist overtones, reiterate the unease aroused by her photographs: “The images often contain something of the everyday to ground them, juxtaposed with something extraordinary or out of the world to set them free from the realm of the everyday. I use my own body within the work to anchor the images within a place of dreams and personal emotions.” Decidedly not the lingo of a straight or “decisive moment” photographer. Her teachers at Wisconsin’s Lawrence University, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, plus critic Lyle Rexer (The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, 2009), were particularly influential on the evolution of Semivan’s sensibility.
Born Huntsville, AL, 1976 / BA, Vassar College / MFA, Rhode Island School of Design
A photograph is a powerful object—it carries the assumption of truth like no form of image-making ever has. Like the bards of old, it confirms our truth by telling and re-telling our stories. Like the ancient myths those bards repeated, photographs carry hidden messages that draw difficult, paradoxical truths out of our shadows.
The photographic work of Millee Tibbs examines the dark reflection of such fairy tale tropes as girlish innocence, wild landscape, and unicorns. Identity, memory and place are, in Tibbs’ images, composed not of real truths or events but of images that stand in for, and claim to be evident of, those truths and events that define our worldview. Tibbs’ work argues that the images we turn to for nostalgia, grounding, and beauty index times and places that, in fact, never truly existed—or at least, not as we, aided by the breadcrumb trail of documentary images, recall them.
Born Philadelphia, PA, 1943 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
Striding smack into the dusty but revered genre of land and sea photography a few decades ago, Carla Anderson began her determined, protracted pursuit to record wondrous sites “seen with fresh eyes.” Undaunted by the preponderance of land- and seascape vistas produced by nineteenth century masters like William Henry Jackson, Gustave Le Gray, and Timothy O’Sullivan, she vowed to chronicle over-familiar scenes “in a way that made them unfamiliar.” Thus began Anderson’s quest to evolve a vision uniquely her own, little realizing at the time that the distinctive aesthetic she sought would not materialize until 2006.
Born Detroit, 1959 / BFA, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; MA, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA; MFA, The University of Michigan School of Art and Design (now Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design) / Lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI
Conceptual photographer Cynthia Greig admits to being uninterested in the mechanics of photography; rather, she is fascinated by the facts and fictions of the photographic image. She came to photography through studying art history and filmmaking after an undergraduate degree in printmaking, and is a collector and published historian of nineteenth-century photography. Manipulated photographs, such as enhanced scenes of the Civil War and trick portraits of circus performers, hold a particular fascination. Inspired, in part, by these rudimentary red herrings, her own work as a photographer and video artist has centered on photography’s ability to manipulate what we think we see. With sly wit underscoring elegant images, she explores the area between idea and belief, between the physical and the imaginary, between perception and reality.
Born Detroit, 1948 / BFA, MFA, MEd, Wayne State University / Lives Royal Oak, MI
Donita Simpson’s regal portrait of Gilda Snowden (2014) is a commanding example of her ongoing series of photographs of Detroit artists. In Snowden’s pose, as if athwart a throne—as one respondent opined—Simpson nails her fellow artist’s magnetic, larger than life persona as painter, teacher, and indefatigable arts activist. Casually dressed and ensconced amidst a cluttered studio, Snowden (1954-2015) all but bursts into the viewer’s space, dominating both pictorial field and spectator’s territory. Snowden’s open-armed enthusiasm vis-a-vis the metro art community is mirrored in Simpson‘s brace of photographic studies—and, one might add, Essay’d’s ongoing profiles too. Such expansive efforts, including canvassing and connecting with an array of area artists, inform Simpson‘s own creative practice.
Born New York, 1952/BA, Beloit College/BFA, Minneapolis College of Art and Design/MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art/Lives in Royal Oak, Michigan
With a virtual wave of the hand, Andrea Eis beckons all seekers of enlightenment to traverse an enfilade of tall columns for a consultation with the Oracle of Delphi. In this 1992 installation, a large, impassive visage of the priestess awaits the curious visitor at the end of the processional way. Once in her presence, red vinyl letters affixed to the photograph announce: SHE SPOKE HER MIND. Simultaneously, the truth seeker notes that at her feet, embedded in rocks on the floor, another phrase claims: THEY HEARD HIS. This startling contradiction, like a wallop to the head, swiftly apprises the visitor of the phallocentric dynamic between genders—then and now. As Eis asserts: “From Antigone’s battle with her conscience and her sense of moral duty, to Demeter’s conflict over separation from her daughter, mythic people struggled with dilemmas we still encounter.”
Born Manchester, Tennessee, 1952/Studied College for Creative Studies, Detroit/Lives in Detroit, Michigan
“I’ve been a tree-hugger all my life,” recalls S. Kay Young, a long-time venerator of the natural world (and primarily of her Michigan environs). Of Cherokee descent, she describes herself as an “urban Indian” who became enamored of photography from an early age, Continue reading
Born Chicago, IL 1975 / BA Hampshire College; MFA University of Michigan, Ann Arbor / Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
Printmaker Toby Millman is not one to talk unless you are listening. Her presence, like her work, is often quite understated, indicating not a lack of depth, but confidence in what you will find when you take the time to notice. One thing you will find is a body of work that interjects quiet reflection into scenes of active conflict— Continue reading
Born Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1980 / BFA Virginia Commonwealth University, MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
It is a foundational concern of Shanna Merola’s that all of her work be firmly embedded in its historical context. Observance and urgent communication of moments of injustice are the center of her personal, professional, and artistic life. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1964 / BA, University of California at Los Angeles / MFA, University of Michigan / Lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan
To date, Melanie Manos has scrunched into the upper shelves of walk-in closets; inserted her body between exposed wall studs; inhabited the interiors of defunct, doorless refrigerators; squeezed into rolling metal utility cabinets; ducked into niches and crevasses of attics; walked the rafters; clambered up, over, and down interior walls; climbed the exteriors of multistoried buildings; and, most recently, shinnied into the upper reaches of gigundo, sequoia-sized tree trunks. A number of Manos’s intrepid feats have been achieved digitally or on video and, surprisingly perhaps, beget as potent a reflexive audience reaction—fear, unease, release—as her literal, physical performances. She is indeed the consummate interdisciplinary artist who works in performance, digital media, and installation, exhibiting not only nationally but internationally.