Core Strength: Artist Basil Kincaid And ‘The Reclamation Project’

It’s almost 90 degrees on a September Sunday and we are searching for shade. A weekly flea market hugs a grassy corner; late morning Cherokee Street in St. Louis is quiet.

I am trailing artist Basil Kincaid, no stranger to this turf. Heading down the sidewalk into Master Pieza, we swap friendly hellos with owner William Porter, and the pair push a couch from inside the shop toward a sunless spot outside. As we wait for the arrival of lyricist and storyteller Eric “Prospect” White, jazz floats from the storefront. A soft breeze follows.

We are steps from where the two friends met five years ago—Blank Space’s 2011 “Double Consciousness” show. I comment that the music, the setting and the heat remind me of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Kincaid smiles and Prospect arrives, taking a seat across from us.

Both artists grew up in St. Louis neighborhoods, Kincaid in suburb Rock Hill, Prospect in south city. With interdisciplinary artist and music producer Damon Davis of East Side provenance, the trio founded The Reclamation Project in 2012. “It all began because the three of us were looking at our environment—the nature of housing in St. Louis, segregation, nothing new—trying to find a way with our various talents to come together and do something to address the city that made us who we are,” Kincaid explains.

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Dividing its collaborative output into thematic “chapters,” Reclamation is at heart a narrative endeavor, no less conscious of its story’s progress than a novelist toiling in solitude. But it’s the Western valorization of the individual artist that the Project heartily rejects. “One of our core concepts is interdependence,” says Kincaid, “the premise that as artists, we can do more together than we can individually.”

And what are they reclaiming? St. Louis itself—a place as rich in creative legacy as it is fraught with a history of racial tumult. They are “repurposing the ruins. Taking back our community, our identity, our culture,” as Davis describes it later on the phone.

“St. Louis is like the Bermuda Triangle of the United States,” claims Prospect. “Things happen here that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”

In its four years, Reclamation has made things happen that wouldn’t—and couldn’t—happen
anywhere else, mining St. Louis’ heritage and presenting it anew across artistic genres. Launching a first chapter in 2012 that was thematically linked to housing, Kincaid included media such as oil paint pigmented with reclaimed bricks. Prospect’s lyrics reference “cinderblock smacking asphalt…the reflection of a wrecking ball on a chain,” and the music, produced by Davis, situates famous St. Louis residents within a fresh hip-hop framework. “If you listen to the first album, we turn to city greats like Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and Scott Joplin,” explains Prospect. “Whether with the vocal samples or the choice of instruments, we take old things and make them new again.”

“Each chapter, no matter where it takes place, uses culturally relevant materials,” adds Kincaid, pausing to wave from the couch at a familiar passerby. “And each exhibition has been a portrait of the city in terms of the type of audience it has drawn, bringing together people from different parts of the city, different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes.”

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The Project’s second chapter, released 2014– 2015, focused on communication, assuming a cross-continental, Pan-African approach based partly on Kincaid’s artistic residency in Ghana. Artwork and costumes were assembled from Ghanaian prepaid phone cards—one vibrant installation still on display on Jefferson Ave. next to Nebula Coworking Space. The musical album (out this winter from Davis’s label, FarFetched) reflects on the climate of St. Louis in the wake of Mike Brown’s death and the Ferguson protests. “This second chapter,” says Kincaid, “searched for belonging and a sense of home amidst multiple displacements within St. Louis and also from where our original homes may have been— so much so that we don’t even know where those original places are.”

The Project’s third chapter channels public exigencies into a more personal community process, taking the quilt as its central metaphor and source of inspiration. “The goal of this chapter is to make it more interactive—pretty much all the materials have been donated from people all around the city,” Kincaid shares. “We are reclaiming bits of collective memory and building new stories.”

For the many contributors to this chapter, these discarded elements forge a healing practice meant to confront and push through traumas experienced by the city. Collaborating with St. Louis citizens across race and class, the act of quilting becomes a means of both self-exploration and acknowledgment of a shared humanity. Prospect is quick to interject, “The people themselves are the stitches.”

“My grandmother was a quilter, and wrapped in one of her quilts, you could feel the love in every stitch,” says Kincaid. “Quilts act as vessels for ancestral energy—we’re not alone or isolated from those that came before us. I feel like that’s important right now because it helps to situate ourselves within a legacy.”

When asked what challenges might confront such a collaborative, interdisciplinary project and its impact on the community, Kincaid cheerfully turns the question on its head. “I feel like the collaboration was an answer to a challenge. There are questions that can’t fully be answered on one’s own,”Kincaid says.“Someone might see a piece of work and not get everything out of it, but then hear the music or have a different sensory experience that illuminates it later.”

As for the quilt’s figurative merits, Davis is quick to stress its literality. “The quilt metaphor is not just a metaphor—historically, quilts were made by slaves, as a means of escape and of survival,” he explains. “The quilt is about the survival of your body, your mind, and your soul, and we seek to take back that tradition and recontextualize it for present times.”

“The country and the world are looking at St.Louis right now,” emphasizes Kincaid. “Politically, artistically, St. Louis is being watched. The work and the steps toward doing what’s right force me to use whatever platform I have to do the same thing. All of this plays a small role in the larger picture.”

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Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

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