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Art in Focus: The Symbolic Nature of Basil Kincaid’s Quilt-Based Work

By Julie SchneiderApr 26 2023
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Light streams through storefront windows and a steady whirring-hum of sewing and embroidery machines fill Basil Kincaid’s studio in Tema, Ghana. Situated inside four connected roadside shops, the space serves as one of the multimedia artist’s creative bases (along with Kincaid's home in St. Louis). Here, with support from six assistants, who help cut, piece, sew, and embroider, the artist produces large-scale quilts, which meld improvisational patchwork with drawings rendered in thread and textiles, including reclaimed and repurposed fabrics. “When I'm in Ghana using certain local materials, each material or each pattern has a meaning,” Kincaid says. “It's almost like how artists will sample in hip hop or other music: You take these samples and make a new story, new combinations. I love the storytelling nature of the material.”

Beginning April 24, 2023, Kincaid’s artwork will be on display throughout Rockefeller Center, as the latest installment of Art in Focus, a public art presentation produced in partnership with the Art Production Fund. The artist’s various and overlapping modes of making — fiber art, collage, drawing, photography, and performance — are threaded throughout the exhibition.

At 10 Rockefeller Plaza, a street-level window showcases “The River,” a huge quilt populated with a group of stylized, nude figures with outstretched fingers surrounding a cascade of fabrics tumbling over the lower edge. A 125-foot mural on the Rink Level features photos of zoomed-in elements (embroidered textures, stitchwork, words, flowers) from Kincaid’s quilts, which, the artist says, “let details become their own work.” Vinyl murals can also be viewed at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, and Radio Park. Inside the trio of glass cases at 45 Rockefeller Plaza, quilts are shown as sites for picnics, restorative gatherings among friends on a grassy slope. “The quilt, to me, is symbolic of prioritizing rest,” Kincaid says. “I'm interested in Black people having leisure time and feeling valuable. We are innately valuable at all times, even if we are luxuriating on a hillside.” Some of the works presented at Rockefeller Center, the artist adds, should also serve as “a reminder to take time for yourself to heal and experience life.”

Born in 1986 in St. Louis, Missouri, Kincaid has been drawing fervently since the artist was 3 years old, according to Kincaid's mother. Apparently, if she set the artist up with a stack of paper and crayons, Kincaid would be occupied for hours. Kincaid drew flowers, people, robots, airplanes, and cars, and would even draw during church to stay awake. In middle school, Kincaid became interested in graffiti. Even though the artist couldn’t sneak out and spray-paint with peers, Kincaid designed custom stickers to put up. And the artist's immersion in the art form and culture inspired Kincaid to develop a personalized visual language to express ideas in an original way. “Growing up, I didn't know you could become a professional artist,” Kincaid says. Kincaid's dad worked for Chrysler and the artist's mom worked in financial services. “I thought I would get a job where I could make my money, ideally retire relatively young, and then focus on art. But as I grew up, art started taking more and more control.”

Kincaid attended Colorado College, where the artist started off with a focus in business — but not for long. The program was structured so that students took one class at a time, a fully-immersed experience. “My first art class was the first time in my life where art was my only focus,” Kincaid says. “I was like, ‘This is the best.’ There was no way I could focus on doing a job knowing that there's somebody out there that gets to do this.” In 2010, Basil Kincaid graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“I was the only Black artist in my department. And the focus of the canon that was presented to me at school was so white and male,” Kincaid recalls. “When I left school I was like, ‘I want to learn what Black artists are doing. What are artists in my age group doing?’ School felt more like a training period for my technical skills.”

In 2014, after a stint teaching middle school art in New Orleans, Kincaid embarked on a program through a Boston-based non-profit organization called Arts Connect International — a real turning point for Kincaid's art career, bringing the artist to Ghana for the first time. After entrepreneurship training, the artist spent about a year in Accra working in collaboration with local residents on a project titled “Reclamation Ghana,” which involved making large collages out of colorful, discarded calling cards collected from the streets. Now Kincaid has set up a studio in a nearby city, where the artist continues to turn reclaimed materials into art.

“During that time in Ghana, one of the things that stood out the most was how engaged people were with their familial practices,” Kincaid says. “If a guy was a tailor, his dad was probably a tailor, and his dad was probably a tailor.” The experience got Kincaid thinking about the artist's own family’s creative legacy: quilting. Kincaid recalls spending childhood summers at the artist's grandparents’ Arkansas farm in a rural, Black farming community. Kincaid's grandmother and her sisters made quilts as a part of everyday life on the farm, a mode of resourcefulness. Following the thread as far back as it can be traced, at least six generations, Kincaid has found that all of the artist's ancestors have been quiltmakers. “My generation would've been the one generation that would've broken the link,” Kincaid says. “I was basically like, ‘Not on my watch.’”

Since 2016, quilts have been a major focus of Kincaid’s art practice, each one layered with meaning and emotion. While quilting, Kincaid feels a certain familial presence and fortitude, like the artist's grandmother is still nearby. Made from cast-off clothing and other fabrics, Kincaid’s quilts are embedded with personal histories. The artist says, “The quilt has the energy from all of these people that touched and lived in the materials.”

To Kincaid, a quilt can be symbolic of a whole patchwork of things: family tradition, love and care, reinvention, play, rest, transformation. “The material is kind of alive. It wears. It changes over time,” Kincaid says. “I like the idea of art that can be alive and grow and change and have its own experiences.” Some of the quilt-based works featured in the new exhibition at Rockefeller Center also played central roles in Kincaid’s performances; the artist had picnics on some, and slept with them, too, imbuing them with a certain vitality.

Having work on display at Rockefeller Center means Kincaid’s quilts will reach new audiences while communing with both a grand sweep of art history and rhythms of daily routines. “When I got to go to Rockefeller Center the first time,” Kincaid recalls, “my first thought was how cool it was that my art would get to be a part of people's everyday life — all the people who work there. A lot of people seeing it might not otherwise see my art. Also, I work in a traditional medium, so it's cool to be in this historical context, with this legacy of art and art collecting.”

When visitors encounter the artist's work throughout the Rockefeller Center campus, Kincaid hopes they experience joy and a sense of possibility and curiosity. “I like for people to feel that they're a part of something bigger than just what we think of as everyday life.”

Basil Kincaid’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through August 6, 2023. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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