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Quil Lemons, “Matt”, Quiladelphia (2023)
Quil Lemons, “Matt”, Quiladelphia (2023)Photography Quil Lemons

Quil Lemon’s portraits are a radical exploration of Black queer sexuality

The photographer’s debut solo exhibition Quiladelphia is a celebration of living unapologetically, featuring candid self-portraits and provocative pictures of the artist’s friends, models and sex workers

“People told me I was destroying what it meant to be a Black man, and I’m such a contrarian,” says Dazed 100 alumni Quil Lemons. “So I was like, OK, let’s really destroy, keep pushing the envelope further.” Six years ago, from his college dorm, Lemons reached virality with his photo series Glitterboy. The portraits and interviews of Black boys and men, faces painted with glitter, were created at the intersection of being Black, queer or straight, feminine and masculine. Lemons sought to dispute narrow perceptions and policing of Black masculinity. Once shared to his social media accounts, the images prompted praise and criticism. He reflects: “I think that in my process of ‘destroying masculinity’, I created a space of safety for queer people to have an existence that was full.”

In years since, he continues to command attention in the art world and fashion industry alike. Now he’s celebrating the opening of his debut solo exhibition in Manhattan, New York. Entitled Quiladelphia, the new series is a natural continuation of his previous work, offering an unabashed survey of Lemons’ own queer psyche. Tender faces of friends old and new; fishnets on faceless bodies; laced stockings and leather bondage framing the nude. Intimate, yet playful, the images are a visual diary, manyfold in their intentions to dismantle stereotypical notions of what vulnerability looks like for the Black man. “I always created my own reality. And I think Quiladelphia is the full extension of that, welcome to my world, my universe,” Lemons tells Dazed. “If I keep being this radically honest, radically true, then maybe I'm creating a space for people like me to just be.”

Stepping out of lockdown as a previously self-proclaimed homebody, Lemons, to his own surprise, found liberation in nightlife. “The club is really integral to queer space,” he says. “It’s been really freeing to just be outside and dance, and be among people that have lived similar experiences to me. I really feel that sense of unity, that definitely is a huge influence on the project.” Embracing this vital vein and pulse of community, translated to newfound freedom in his visual language.  

“People told me I was destroying what it meant to be a Black man, and I’m such a contrarian. So I was like, okay, let’s really destroy, keep pushing the envelope further” – Quil Lemons

Over the course of two years, the Philadelphia native invited people from all walks of life as muses to his artistic practice. Friends, models, sex workers, whose identities range from straight to trans and queer comprise this monochromatic body of work. Using film, with each subject, Lemons lensed a literal and figurative vision of “balls to the wall” sincerity. 

The 26-year-old thought it only fair to also explore his own body as a canvas for communication. “If I'm going to be shooting these boys, I also have to shoot myself because then it becomes voyeuristic,” he says. In creating self-portraits for the new series, Lemons asked himself ‘who am I being safe for?”

“I feel like Black queer sexuality is fetishised at the same time that it’s wound and bound up,” he explains. “And I don’t know, if there’s a moment where it’s ever just free, where it’s allowed to be, it is always attached to something else other than itself or the person. It’s so loaded but at the same time, it’s not.” The show’s leading image is a raw representation of the artist relinquishing the weight of expectations, donning American flag pants, riding boots and tied in bondage for the first time ever.  

“It was the first time in a long time I really felt free with image-making,” he says. With each portrait, Lemons lays it bare, “holding a mirror to morality”, challenging himself and the audience to let their guard down. In doing so, the photographer hopes to place power back into his own and the audience’s hands.

Although profoundly personal, Quiladelphia reverberates introspection and radical honesty that is relevant to us all. “I think many people might look at it and be like, if I’m not a Black queer person, then what the fuck does this have to do with me? And I think that’s super easy, almost reductive,” he says. “I feel like you should walk away with a sense of, if he’s being truthful with his life, then why can’t I?”

Quiladelphia is running at Hannah Traore Gallery in New York City until November 4 2023. 

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