In the studio

Irene Reece on Art and Healing: “The Work Makes Me Feel Unapologetic”

Meet the visual artist and activist using her family archive as a creative resource.

By Amarie Gipson October 1, 2021

Contemporary artist and visual activist Irene Antonia Diane Reece amidst the installation of her work Home-goings at the Galveston Art Center. Courtesy of the artist and Troy Montes. 

Image: Troy Montes

AS A CONTEMPORARY ARTIST, VISUAL ACTIVIST AND A PROUD HOUSTONIAN, Irene Antonia Diane Reece has always advocated for what is right, even when it seems impossible. Through the careful use of images sourced from her family archives, her work explores issues of racial identity, from hair politics to colorism and mental health. Working primarily in photography and film, Reece is striving towards a more equitable world.  

Born in Southeast Houston, Reece has always had an affinity for moving images and storytelling. Her childhood was filled with foreign films, exhibition openings and art projects, like creating home videos using scans of family photo albums and pirated Youtube videos. Reece's initial ambitions were to pursue musical theatre and become a classically trained opera singer, but after taking a traditional darkroom class at a local community college, she shifted her focus to photography.

“I used to think photography was a lazy form of art, but then I realized there’s more to it, I fell in love with it. It felt more natural to me than singing and I knew it was my calling,” she tells Houstonia. 

No Place I Rather Be Than Here, 2021. Metropolitan United Methodist Church, Conroe, Texas. Courtesy of the artist. 

Image: Irene Reece

From undergrad to graduate school, navigating racism in higher education posed a multitude of challenges for Reece. Before embarking on a journey to Paris to pursue an MFA in photography, she spent time with her paternal grandmother who guided her through their family photo albums. This experience left a profound impression on Reece, inspiring her to scan and collect these memories for safekeeping. Those same images provided solace and grounding for her while abroad. Reece explained that her motivation for making work using her family’s archive was to “help heal from micro-and macro-aggressions” and remind herself that she belonged.

“Everything in Paris felt very touristy and I had a hard time finding inspiration because of my background. I was also dealing with white teachers, French and American, who would denounce my Blackness. It put me in a really unsafe headspace and made me feel like I was in fight mode at all times. You are surrounded by the history of colonialism and white supremacy in France and Europe as a whole (which is still very prevalent today). It really made me think about how a space can affect my work or cause harm to me. It became so therapeutic to look through my family archive.” 

Installation view of Home-goings at the Galveston Art Center. Courtesy of the artist and Troy Montes. 

Image: Troy Montes

This process of introspection inspired for Billie-James (c. 2016-ongoing), a photo series that uses word art and family portraits to bridge connections between her father’s Civil Rights era upbringing and her present-day experiences with racial discrimination. This series also paved the way for her most recent body of work, Home-goings (c. 2019-ongoing), an installation that merges archival photographs with ephemera like church fans and communion wafers marked with the faces of victims of police brutality. The work is an homage to the liberating power of the Black Christian church, spirituality and funerary practices in the Black community. Reece handles each image she repurposes with care, especially ones of people who have passed on or been taken away violently. “In a way, I treat the images as actual people, very gently. I’m sort of bringing them back into circulation. I look at the images with love and admiration and I feel blessed that I’m able to enjoy a person’s presence within the images,” she says.

In 2020, Reece secured her graduate degree and returned to her family home in Houston. After being the focus of a solo exhibition at the Galveston Arts Center, having her work featured in the 2021 Texas Biennial, and being chosen for Kehinde Wiley's Black Rock Senegal artist residency, it’s safe to say that Reece is one of Houston’s rising talents. The increased visibility has pushed her to prioritize self-care and galvanized her to be an advocate for other aspiring artists. On adjusting to the new demand, she says, “There’s a lot of pressure but I’ve had to remind myself that I’m making this work for me, first and foremost.”

Despite her frustrations with the “lack of opportunities for emerging artists, especially Black women,” she remains grateful to her hometown for its community spirit and diversity.

"Houston is unlike any other place and I take that with me everywhere.”

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