The following interview was produced in partnership with Commissioner, a membership program that’s fostering a community of new local art collectors and sharing the stories of Miami arts and artists. The interview was conducted by Commissioner and WhereBy.Us co-founder Rebekah Monson and has been edited for length and clarity.
Chire Regans, a Miami-based artist focused on portraiture known on social media as VantaBlack, promotes activism and social justice through her work. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Regans has spent the past several years creating The Memorial Portrait Project, an ongoing series of more than 200 monochrome portraits memorializing those who lost their lives as a result of violence and systemic racism. She also created “Say Their Names,” a mural at Bakehouse Art Complex honoring victims of gun violence, police brutality, hate crimes, and domestic violence. She is the 2020 winner of the Oolite Arts Social Justice Award and Miami New Times’ Best Visual Artist among many other honors.
“A Reflection of the Times,” a memorial exhibition of Regans’ portraiture is free and open to the public from May 21 to November 1 at Bakehouse Art Complex. The exhibition is presented by Commissioner in partnership with New World School of the Arts to promote the work and community contributions of NWSA alumni.
You’re among Miami’s most vocal, socially conscious, and engaged working artists — where did your creative path begin?
I was born an artist. I have always been interested in expressing myself and visual images were one of the first ways that I could communicate effectively. When we moved to Miami in the late eighties, I had an art teacher in elementary school who noticed that I was good at art and that I liked to do it. She got my mother involved and was like, “Look, your daughter likes to do this, let her do it.” I applied for a magnet program in junior high school. And then I continued on from there through college at New World School of the Arts and beyond.
I don’t really come from a family of artists. People are more in service in my family. So being an artist was not encouraged initially. My mother really tried to steer me in a different direction, but she eventually got that this is what I want to do. I’m grateful that I get to do it every day.
Your art and your life are deeply invested in this community as an activist and advocate against violence. How did your art evolve alongside your mission?
I went to college in Tallahassee at Florida A&M, and I was really encouraged to express exactly what I was thinking, to have a message, to learn, to have a foundation in Blackness. I was still focusing on the figure, but I was speaking through my work to my experience.
After I became a parent, there was more of a sense of urgency in what I created. I started to be far more aware of what was happening around me, and I would put that in my work. In 2016, my first child was six and this baby, King Carter, was shot and killed in Liberty City. I remember seeing that baby’s face everywhere. And every time I saw his face, I saw my son’s face. That could have been my child. So, I did what I know and I went to the work: I started to do research about him to share his story. I wanted to use social media to disseminate information quickly, so I did King’s and four other portraits, accompanying each with a narrative.
People started to reach out to me and asked me to tell the stories of their relatives. It just grew. I wasn’t really ready for having to be in dialogue about this work, but I had to learn to speak and that became part of this practice also. I also had to tell my own personal story, which was very, very difficult because it was something that I just buried. I was 17, and my first boyfriend was shot and killed. Everything surrounding that moment and how I navigated grief is still surreal to me.
Today, that informs the work that I do because I understand what it’s like to grieve. Since then, I’ve had two family members who’ve lost their lives. When somebody reaches out to me and tells me about their relative, we are able to have an honest and straightforward conversation because I know. I understand what they’re going through.
I’ve developed relationships with families, parents, activists in the community, political leaders. And I’ve been invited to bring this work and talk about what’s happening in communities, locally and across the country. I think of myself as a bit like a truth-teller, and I tell the truth through my work for the families and for the people who have died. They give me permission to do that, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do.
Why do you think that portraiture is so powerful in this context?
A picture is one thing, but I am sharing someone’s story through their face, and there’s a different type of connection there. How I see them, the care that I take, the materials that I use, how I feel at the time, all of that is present in the work, and all of these things affect the story. It’s intentional so that you see this person as I understand who they were to their families.
A lot of people want to know the type of life this person lived, because they’re trying to rationalize their death. These people, like everybody, live their own lives. Some people live very dangerous lives, but the commonality is they’re all gone. All of them are gone, and it’s not just about this person that’s gone. It’s also about everybody that loved this person. Every single person has people who love that child and who miss them, regardless of their choices.
One of the things that strikes a viewer right away is the monochromatic color palette and the inversion of black and white in these portraits and in your mural. How did you arrive at that style of presentation?
I’m interested in light and form and how light hits a form. I want to speak to a person with just their face and how light is hitting the form and the features of their face. I’ve always been drawn to this idea of bringing light out of darkness.
I want to be accurate in how I portray them, and I do want you to know that these people are from a specific race. Part of this dialogue is that it’s disproportionately happening to a specific group. In telling these stories, I have to talk about why this is happening and then counter the bullshit reasons that people have as to why so many Black lives are lost. I have to be prepared and informed to encourage the dialogue surrounding race that needs to happen. That dialogue is uncomfortable for people, but it’s necessary. That’s one of my goals — let’s talk about what’s happening to people in these communities.
You have served on civic boards, and you’ve become a powerful voice for social justice in Miami beyond your art. What sparked that for you?
I am an artist and a Black woman who is unafraid to do the work. Artists were the first storytellers. I have to be present and I have to address what’s happening around me. And these families trust me to speak up for them, so I make sure that if I’m telling somebody’s story, I’m able to tell their story well.
I’m always in a space as an artist in the community. I’m not in a space as somebody running for office, I am representing those lives in my work, the communities, the people. People have embraced this work and invited me into spaces, and that is interesting. It’s challenging, and is necessary. So many people in these spaces; they want to dance around issues and distract from what we’re really there for. I’m always trying to be a reminder that we’re here for a reason.
When you distance yourself from this violence around you, you become complacent and you allow things to happen and you think that you won’t be affected. A lot of the conversations that I have with families are exactly that. I never thought this would happen to me.
I would like people to understand that there’s always something that you can do. Activism doesn’t always have to look the same way. Not everybody has to march. Not everybody has to create art. But everybody has to do something. You just find your something, then you do that.
More information on “A Reflection of the Times” is available on the Bakehouse Art Complex website. The exhibition will be on display Friday, May 21 through Monday, November 1, 2021.