The work of Quil Lemons has always been something of a quiet testimony. Whether it’s the documentations of a block in his hometown of Philadelphia in his daring series 6 7, or his weaving of the generational gap through his photo essay To Say the Same Thing in Many Different Ways, he always assumes the position of a mirror for his subjects, who have often been close friends and family. Quiladelphia is the latest feat for the photographer, with different subjects, but the same closeness and the same commitment to self exploration. The exhibition of the new series, held at Hannah Troare Gallery in New York, traces Quil’s documentation of the Black male form and his experience as a Black gay man, continuing on his journey of using “photography as a diary”.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Quil experienced a similar journey to many late-millennial and early gen-Z queer kids – closeted and finding a community online, but still spending copious amounts of time fantasising about their life had they been able to live openly. “Tumblr wasn’t necessarily a queer space, but it was at least queer-coded, like most things in art and fashion,” he tells us. Traversing the platform as young as 11 years old, through the escapism that its imagery had to offer, he found that he could be anyone online; so much so that he started to manifest his current life from the dashboard. “My camera then became a segway between my life and this curated world online. Through my images I felt I had a say in the world,” he adds.
“Quiladelphia is the emancipation of Quil Lemons,” Quil proclaims. The works show a maturation for the photographer in representations of his inner world and surrounding culture. Throughout the series we are met with the power of repetition – a set-like room with tiled floors, non-descript echoing buildings and a wall in what seems to be an empty room. But, he doesn't rely on scenes this time, only varying levels of exposure, and the subject’s vulnerability. Fom the tender and retiring expression in Jabari to the nude and penetrative portraits throughout his untitled works, he brings the breadth of his subject’s experience into full view. “It came from immense research into the queer and Black canon of artists before me,” he tells us. Gaining much of this inspiration and language from Black female artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Lorna Simpson, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, he sees it as being in parallel with his “upbringing of being constantly nurtured and affirmed by Black femininity”.
The challenges that Quil says present themselves in his work aren’t merely about the work itself, but the responsibility that is put upon him to educate the world on Black people’s feelings. “I’m a Black creator, and the white world struggles to understand Blackness.” Among them are unwitting comparisons to Robert Mapplethorpe, which has been a 30-year trend when speaking about Black gay photographers – from Ajamu to Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Lyle Ashton Harris. “Combating the immediate comparison to someone I can’t speak to is a setup,” he tells us. “Those men [in Mapplethorpe’s photographs] didn’t feel uplifted; they felt stolen from. To only be seen as a Black body is to not be seen as a Black person, which mirrors every issue placed on Black queer people. I love his work but the ick can’t be ignored, so as flattering as it is to be placed next to a powerhouse of an artist [...] it’s reductive and too early to think about my legacy; I’m just starting.”
Although Quil doesn’t care to think about legacy yet, his imagery will surely be canonised among other documentations of a Black queer generation. With this he hopes to inspire Black queer men “to be free to exist and create in the world,” and for all allies to help create that space. Two of the most circulated images from the show are self-portraits of the photographer tied up. It makes us wonder, if Quiladelphia is his liberation, then why would he seek portray himself as the most restricted among the subjects? But, after a longer sit with his work, in his wondrous and tender approach, it becomes clear – it’s the most revealed the photographer has ever been.
Quil Lemons: Thugpop (Copyright © Quil Lemons, 2023)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.