Nature Morte in New Delhi recently ran “I Know a Place”, a solo exhibition by New York-based Pakistani artist Salman Toor. Constructed from memory and fantasy, these new paintings are described as “a hedonistic mix of leisure, sensuality, and painterly panache.” Toor, who was born in Lahore in 1983, and obtained his MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn is interested in themes of fashion, effeminacy, as well as the anxieties and comedy of identity. The identity that he explores—very skillfully—in his works is one of a boy who is doubly marginalised, sexually and racially. He is queer, also an immigrant.
Personal narratives emerge that are embedded in the broader context of cultural differences and mobility. A conservative middle class background in Pakistan is contrasted with the liberties of a city like New York that cannot be taken for granted. There are reunions, chance meetings, consolations, reveries and music. Incidents of violence against and humiliation directed at gays are set next to scenes of urban nightlife wherein a young man can be an intimate friend or lover to another young man, belonging to another ethnicity. Here wine glasses, cigarettes and books are plenty, and apartments are private and cosy. The protagonist, despite all the disturbances and insecurities of his life, appears to be an individual who is at home and relaxed in the world.
As they open up the possibility of a dialogue between cultures and continents, Toor’s quietly dramatic paintings also challenge established conventions regarding what it means to be a man/homosexual man—raising questions like how should he look, how should he behave. The artist intentionally creates his gay characters as “sissies”, not as big-muscled machos with sculpted torsos (like Tom of Finland). He has said: “There is just so much beauty and so much to say about them [sissies]. The way people consume masculinity—I’m trying to kick it out of its complacency.”
On a technical level, Toor draws inspiration from the gravity of the Baroque and the levity of the Rococo. He imbues these with an atmosphere reminiscent of the Beat Generation. He has had several solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Pakistan and has participated in significant group shows such as the Kochi Biennale 2016. His work has been featured in publications such as ArtAsiaPacic, Hyperallergic, Artsy, and Wall Street International. His work is included in a number of museum collections, most notably Tate Modern in London. Toor will have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in March 2020.