Houston artist Irene Reece reuses her family archives

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

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

“I used to think of photography as a lazy art form, but I realized there was 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 said. Houstonia.

From undergraduate to graduate school, navigating racism in higher education posed a multitude of challenges for Reece. Before embarking on a trip 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 deep impression on Reece, prompting her to digitize and collect these memories to keep them safe. These same images brought him comfort and foundation abroad. Reece explained that her motivation for working using her family’s archives was “to help heal micro and macro attacks” and to remember that she belonged to her.

“Everything in Paris was very touristy and I had difficulty finding inspiration because of my background. I was also dealing with white professors, French and American, who denounced my Blackness. It put me in really dangerous headspace and made me feel like I was in fight mode all the time. You are surrounded by the history of colonialism and white supremacy in France and in Europe as a whole (which is still very much present today). It really got me thinking about how a space can affect my work or cause me harm. It has become so therapeutic to go through my family archives.

This process of introspection inspired for Billie-James (circa 2016-ongoing), a photo series that uses word art and family portraits to make connections between her father’s upbringing during the civil rights era and his current experiences of racial discrimination. This series also paved the way for his most recent work, Returns home (c. 2019-ongoing), an installation that merges archival photographs with ephemera such as church fans and hosts marked with the faces of victims of police brutality. The work is a tribute to the liberating power of the black Christian church, to the spirituality and funeral practices of the black community. Reece treats every image she reuses with care, especially those of people who have died or been violently abducted. “In a way, I treat the images like real people, very gently. I’m sort of getting them back into circulation. I look at the images with love and admiration and I feel blessed to be able to appreciate the presence of a person in the images, ”she says.

In 2020, Reece graduated from graduate school and returned to her family home in Houston. After being the subject of a solo exhibition at the Galveston Arts Center, showing her work at the 2021 Texas Biennale, and being chosen for Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal Artist Residency, it’s safe to say that Reece is one of Houston’s emerging talents. The increased visibility pushed her to prioritize personal care and galvanized her to champion other budding artists. Adjusting to the new demand, she says, “There is a lot of pressure, but I had to remind myself that I make it work for me, first and foremost. “

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

“Houston is like no other place and I take it everywhere with me.”


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