Basil Kincaid, Melanin Activation: Sun Harvest, 2020-2022. Photography courtesy the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
By Osman Can Yerebakan
Artist and quilter Basil Kincaid has been aiming high—not only with his recent habit of jumping as a form of bodily training, but also with the ambition of his mixed-media quilted works currently making their New York debut at the artist’s solo exhibition “River, Frog and Crescent Moon” at Venus Over Manhattan. All seven large-scale quilts at the Upper East Side gallery feature densely woven surfaces, rich with narratives that combine the subliminal with the everyday. Contorted bodies with large phalluses stretch over fluid dreamscapes; geometric patterns provide hallucinatory backdrops. Overall, bright hues—mainly from textiles that Kincaid collects from his loved ones—remain persistent.
“Part of the mythology in the work takes daily elements in life and attribute further meaning,” he says. “It could be seen simply as jumping or a metaphor for taking a leap of faith or reaching a new height.” The leaping figure in the show’s only vertical quilt, The Frog (2022), is autobiographical, capturing both his recent hobby and the bounds his studio practice has made. This year alone, the 36-year-old has been featured in group shows at Kunsthalle Krems in Austria, Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C., Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, and curator Legacy Russell’s traveling Hauser & Wirth exhibition, “The New Bend,” and another solo exhibition in Miami with Mindy Solomon Gallery.
Moving to Accra in 2014 on an Arts Connect International residency as a painter was a turning point for Kincaid’s life and career. After years of working as a middle school art teacher, he had felt the urge for a new chapter in his own practice—and the residency allowed him to pick an international destination for a nine-month sojourn. Kincaid chose Ghana to see the dungeons built for enslaved people on the coast during slave trade. There, he started quilting for the first time, “because I felt close to my family history,” he says.
“After a Western canon-focused education at school, I wanted to know what my lineage was producing.” Using his “muscle memory” of bending over the paper to draw as a 10-year-old kid came in handy to scout and weave horizontally on the floor. Now, the artist’s work marries Ghana’s local fiber traditions, such as kente cloth, with traditional Black American techniques, “to look at their relationships through the materials and the act of weaving,” he explains.
Hailing from a family with a long history in quilting, Kincaid remembers watching his grandmother and her friends do the needlework at his grandparents’ farm in Arkansas with “a distanced curiosity.” Today, the spiritual element of his practice comes in heavy “because I can feel her energy with me.” Revisiting familial lineage has also granted Kincaid fresh eyes to look at art history. His grandmother’s intuitive quilts, similar to the southern tradition of Gee’s Bend, serve as inspiration. “Those patterns she created are the height of abstraction, but no one regarded them that way,” Kincaid says. His own work vows to give quilting the art lineage it deserves.
While quilting at his Accra studio where all the works in his new show come from, the act is bigger than him, a meditation that weaves the efforts of generations of celebrated or forgotten Black quilters. Sewing together emotionally-charged fabrics with intuition is critical for letting his subconsciousness lead the way. “If I had to filter my ideas through my cognitive mind, who knows if I would have started quilting,” Kincaid admits.