With His Debut Solo Show, Photographer Quil Lemons Holds Up a Mirror to Masculinity

Quil Lemons, Quiladephia, 2023. All images courtesy of the artist and Hannah Traore Gallery.

In his seminal text Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, the late scholar José Esteban Muñoz wrote, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” In the series of images that constitute his first solo show, “Quiladelphia," 26-year-old photographer Quil Lemons echoes Muñoz’s words, offering both a visual riposte to the constraints of contemporary masculinity and a celebration of the unlimited potential for male expression.

The monochrome photographs, up at Hannah Traore Gallery until Nov. 4, probe the topography of gender and sexuality, and Lemons’s subjects of affection reverberate with sensual self-assurance. Throughout the series, the photographer gives physical form to yearning—for fuller representation, less repression, and a delicious abundance of futures. Here, Lemons opens up about the serendipitous encounter that made the show possible, what happens when desire and politics don’t align, and why he’s finally leaned into queer nightlife.

Quil Lemons, Grant, 2023.

CULTURED: In a statement for this upcoming show, you wrote, "This is ME. Welcome to my brain." What’s on your mind as you're preparing for the show’s opening?

Quil Lemons: What I was saying is, "Welcome to the kaleidoscope of thought when it comes to thinking about masculinity." It's a bit of a self-reflective project. I'm thinking about Blackness, queerness, so many different things like kink and desire. But I'm still figuring out my own stance on those things, too—like intimacy, love, relationships, all of that.

CULTURED: In that vein, do you see the show as an ongoing conversation with yourself and your peers?

Lemons: Definitely. If you pay attention to my pieces, there's a throughline in all my work. You look at "Glitterboy" or even my family stuff, and there's always an element of community. I'm always thinking about masculinity and what it means. I think this show is about radical honesty and radical love. But this is my life's work, and this is just its introduction to the fine art world. I've existed in the fine art world, but never by myself. What I'm doing is welcoming you into what that will look like in the future. I'm just gonna keep expanding it.

Quil Lemons, Untitled, 2023.

CULTURED: How did you connect with Hannah Traore

Lemons: My life is very serendipitous. I met Hannah through Isolde Brielmaier [deputy director of the New Museum], who was a mentor to Hannah at the time. And Isolde’s always been a mentor to me. I had my institutional debut in a group show at the International Center of Photography, which she curated. When I started thinking about my first solo, it only made sense to work with Hannah. We share a similar goal, and we're both Black and entering a space that's predominantly white. 

But we also really want to remove respectability politics—she's dealing with it more as a woman, and I deal with it as a queer person. We don't want to mirror whiteness, we just want to be ourselves. Why do we have to show up in these traditional ways to make others comfortable? We are visually shaking up the room, but that's not the point. We're here doing great work, and that's the point. I don't know, we just get each other. That's really it. We both look at each other, and it's like, "Okay, I fuck with you." 

Quil Lemons, Thugpop, 2023.

CULTURED: In what way is this series and this show a departure from past work?

Lemons: For so long, I was just making work for myself. Then I had to understand the platform that I have. My work was resonating with people globally. I had to understand what Quil Lemons meant. It got meta because there's multitudes in being a Black artist. You have to have great work, but then your person is on full display at all times, too. That informed the work in a really beautiful way because I started using my body as a means of communicating ideas. 

There's a scarcity of truth in art right now. I wanted to be really honest and vulnerable because I want to see more of that in art. I was also thinking about where desire and personal politics don't align, and queer intimacy and what that looks like in images. I was reading about Whitney Hubbs, who made a body of work that was really crude. I wanted to go in that way. 

But there's always an air of romance to my work. There's a tenderness even when it gets a little bit naughty. Some things did make me a little bit nervous, and I was clutching my pearls a bit at the idea of sharing it publicly. But at the same time, I understood that the point of being an artist is to do things that make you uncomfortable. I'm placing a mirror in front of morality.

Quil Lemons, Malik, 2023.

CULTURED: Can you speak more about some of the contradictions you were confronting while making "Quiladelphia"?  

Lemons: The overall idea that as a Black man you have to be hypermasculine. When I put up my first series, "Glitterboy," I would receive a lot of comments being called a faggot. People would go as far as saying I was destroying what it meant to be a Black man. And I'm a bit of a contrarian, so I was just like, "Let's see how far we can really push that." If you destroy something, there's a rebirth after. 

CULTURED: What environments or atmospheres did you channel in making the work?

Lemons: I traveled a lot in the past few years, and that exposure to so many different cultures opened my mind to the possibility that nothing's ever fixed. It's also been really nice to tap into queer nightlife. There's a fear of being a young queer person and being like, "Okay, I'm going to the gay club." You have to realize one, that you're gay; then be comfortable with it; and then also be comfortable with having to interact with a bunch of other gay men. I used to be like, "No, I'm not going to do that." But in going, I was like, “How am I afraid of doing this?” You can't really fear homophobia when everyone is dancing to Kylie Minogue

"Quiladelphia" will be on view through November 4, 2023 at Hannah Traore Gallery in New York.