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Quil Lemons’ BOY PARTS
Photography Quil Lemons

Photographer Quil Lemons investigates the formation of black masculinity

The Dazed 100 alumnus debuts a new series of images that uses the Ken doll as its jump-off to talk about breaking down stereotypes

Photographer Quil Lemons has truly had a break-out year. Though he came to prominence via his GLITTERBOY series in 2017, where he painted black men in glitter makeup, this year the 22-year-old cemented his status as an emerging photographer.

“The highlight of my year was really just seeing my own personal growth as an artist,” Lemons, also a Dazed 100 alumnus, says. “To go from doing maybe one or two shoots a month to being able to do like eight or nine and have them all be strong and have their own identities, but still be cohesive, is something that I’m really happy to be able to do.” For this fourth quarter alone, the star has shot three magazine covers. 

But this year, Lemons was also definitively written into the canon. Antwaun Sargent’s The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, writes a global generation of black photographers contending with fashion into history, and names Lemons among them. “To receive that recognition so young was really nice,” Lemons says. “So many black artists have to wait until they’re dead or damn near dead to receive that type of recognition. So I was happy that Antwaun took this moment seriously enough to put it in the canon.”

On December 14, Lemons will showcase this new series in a free group exhibition called Creator Labs. Shot entirely on a Google Pixel 4, BOY PARTS sees Lemons continue to investigate ideas surrounding black masculinity that served as jump-off points for GLITTERBOY and another series, PURPLE, while taking influences from artists such as Mapplethorpe and Kehinde Wiley.

BOY PARTS to me feels like an evolution, or an actualisation, of my talents,” he says. “I think (it) lives in this hyperrealist art space and world I’m creating for myself. Early on, I didn’t realise that’s what I was creating. I was just mixing the fantasies of what I’d wish life could look like with the mundane. There’s a lot of beauty in normalcy. There’s so much beauty in the ghetto and I wanted to hyperbolise that.”

As we debut the series here, Lemons talks more about the influences behind the images.

“I took the Ken doll and I just destroyed it and reconstructed it, which is really what men have to do to find their own identity as a man” – Quil Lemons

Your new series is called BOY PARTS. Can you talk to me a little about that name specifically?

Quil Lemons: We’ve all discussed that masculinity is a construct, and we've been addressing that since 2016. But no one talks about the fact that we, as men, as we go about figuring out life, are sort of building this Frankenstein thing where we just put together what pieces of masculinity or manhood work for us individually. In 2016, the conversation was that this old form of masculinity wasn't working. We had to reposition it with a new idea of what it could be. But no one was addressing the fact that this new idea was being influenced by these old ways of thinking as well.

For me, it's always been this kind of a cluster-fuck of things that sort of make sense for this traditional idea of manhood, but then you look at yourself and you're like, ‘Okay, these other things don't fit.’ So you're picking and choosing what tropes or features of the world’s masculinity fit you, and how that works. So it ends up being a mixture.

I think most men end up being this Frankenstein's monster of what a man ‘should’ be. Originally, I was playing around with the idea of deconstructing a Barbie because I felt like the Barbie doll was something that was supposed to be this peak form of masculinity.

Like a Ken doll?

Quil Lemons: Yeah. Like the Ken doll is supposed to be like the apex of what a man should look like and how a man should be. I thought about how that the Ken doll is something that's only accessible to young girls; young boys are told that we're not supposed to play with dolls in general because it's for girls and it's a feminine thing. So the only way to access this peak masculine form would be through femininity. I thought that was a really interesting tension and juxtaposition. Then I took the Ken doll and I just destroyed it and reconstructed it, which is really what men have to do to find their own identity as a man. Like taking the whole concept of masculinity, the whole concept of what it means to be a man and taking it apart and restructuring it how you want to present yourself, or how you, as a person that is born, or as a person that identifies as a male, what that looks like for you. That's how the name came about.

So how does this relate to the imagery?

Quil Lemons: The imagery was really about just letting these boys' personalities show and letting them just create their own identity – their own idea of what that should be. It was very collaborative in a sense, between me the models, and also the stylist Zara Mirkin, and makeup artist Sage White. The project also changed in a way because I was going to do ‘Black Venus as a Boy’. But I felt like, there’s an idea that black men are always being hyper-sexualised and I wanted to do this in a way of just celebrating the black male form in a way that wasn’t fetishisation. I feel like you never really see black men own their sexuality unless it’s exaggerated.

Then, you see these certain tropes for black men. For one in the series, a lot of the men are sagging their jeans – which is really distinctive to the black experience. Then I think about how they all have these tattoos, something that is really specific and niche to the black community. But on top of all of that, everyone in the series is queer, and so it’s also about how we as queer black people really get to play around with these are the tropes that we place onto our bodies, and sometimes break them.

Black masculinity was also addressed in your first series, GLITTERBOY. Is there a thread connecting the two?

Quil Lemons: As soon as GLITTERBOY came out, this conservative part of black Twitter, was dragging me and calling me a ‘faggot’ for days on end. There was this one Instagram video I did and (in the comments) people were telling me I was destroying what it means to be a black man, that I was a ‘faggot’, and I shouldn't be doing this.

I thought that conversation was interesting because I didn't really do anything. I just put the glitter on people’s faces and that was enough to get all of this response. So it’s like, ‘Okay, you guys didn't like that.’ I like to play devil's advocate and like to really stir the pot and I was like, ‘How do I take this to another level if you think GLITTERBOY was destroying masculinity?" So I really wanted to completely tear this to the ground and rebuild it.

Do you see yourself continuing to investigate black masculinity in your future work?

Quil Lemons: I don't know how to not address the conversation of being a black man, because it's my body and I have to live a lot of these experiences. With the casting decisions, I chose a lot of boys I know that are young black men that don't have it easy walking the streets with the things that they choose to wear, how they present themselves. I don't think GLITTERBOY was subversive enough. I don't think it pushed enough buttons. I don't think it went as far as I really wanted it to go. 

The conversation has become a little bit more popularised and commercial. Like there were 90 different theories put out about ‘restructuring the idea of the black man’. I think people got tired of it but I don’t think that conversation is over – maybe in our little bubble we’ve heard or seen it a lot but it’s really not enough. 

We need to continue those conversations because there are so many people that still come up to me today to talk about GLITTERBOY. I think it'd be silly for me to be like, ‘Oh, I can never address that subject again,’ when it's my life.

Fashion Zara Mirkin, beauty Sage White, lighting Denzel Golatt, set design Daniel J. Horowitz. Creator Labs is open 9am-6pm Dec 14th at 415 Broadway, New York