Ghost stories, friendship and intimate settings

Talal Faisal examines some of Salman Toor’s newer work, which was on display in Lahore recently

Ghost stories, friendship and intimate settings
Numerous Pakistani artists living abroad have contributed significantly to the global art scene by producing quality work over the years - earlier ones including the likes of Rasheed Araeen, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Iqbal Geoffery and a few more.

In comparison to them, today’s generation of diaspora artists are at an advantage. As a result of globalization, advanced communication and an upsurge in social media, they tend to seek better opportunities and substantial recognition despite their non-Western backgrounds. It would be fair to say that the current lot has a greater representation of women artists. There is the Neo Miniature movement that attained ample appreciation and endorsement worldwide.

But there is another offshoot of diaspora artists who never received their formal training in their own country - instead they completed their degrees abroad and undertook the journey to connect with their roots. Their education and training abroad has helped them look critically at the local art tradition and bring in influences and practices that are only adding to the variety of artwork coming out of Pakistan.
Meticulous brushwork, distinctive to Toor’s signature style, absorbs all attention

Perhaps the most exciting prospect is Salman Toor, a Lahore-born artist who did his undergrad from Ohio Wesleyan and further on pursued his Masters at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 2009.

Drawing inspiration from Classical Western painting, Salman’s enticing compositions depict a lot of things: queer brown affinities, complex scenarios and friends in informal settings. He takes the intimate and social fact of alternative sexuality as his dominant subject, articulating the everyday life, emotional states, fantasies, anxieties and aspirations of the homoerotic self. Thus his image making comes from the way he observes his immediate surroundings and responds - as every artist does.

But in his case it’s a documentation of time, space and arrangement of people. In a way the artist secures the role of a reporter, a liberated being originally belonging to a conservative society that fails to acknowledge queerness and is held hostage by its politics. His figures resemble caricatures straight out of fiction but portray local people with fragile physiques, exaggerated features and flaws - attempting to transform the real into the imaginary. Toor’s intention to make his characters occupy the foreground in splendid attires is, in fact, an act of validation or endorsement of queer men of colour - who have otherwise effectively been banished from Art History.

'After Party II'

This past Friday, O Art Space - an art gallery located in the heart of Lahore - opened its doors to the public for a solo exhibition by Salman Toor titled “New Paintings”. They were new for us, the viewers, but of course, crafted from experiences and memories of the artist. Toor sees himself and his friends in the characters he paints, the activities they are  engaged in and the state of mind they are in.

A work of his that you encounter as soon you enter the space titled “Ghost Story” is a dark, gloomy emerald green background with a single source of light on the table in front. It lights up the faces of his characters in the foreground , relaxed in terms of postures but characterized by a profound sense of bewilderment. In comparison the characters in the background seem content and involved in some activity on the phone. The play of red, speaking in reference to the attires of two characters at either end of the picture plane, seems like a conscious decision in an attempt to direct eye movement of the viewer across the surface as red pops up on green, both complimenting each other.

'The Singers'

The piece titled “After Party II” is similar to “Ghost Story” in terms of palette. It depicts leisure time in a cosy little space. The characters seem to feel comfortable in their surroundings, graced by each other’s presence. Notions of privacy amongst them cease to exist at all and thus the lines between individual and collective comfort seem to be blurrred. The stillness in postures of people at either end is balanced by the frenzy created by the two characters in the centre.

“The Singers” is another scintillating compostion. It depicts a scene in an outdoor setting - two guys sitting on a wall at an elevated position. They appear to be singing songs, amusing themselves and lifting the overall mood of the scene. The three characters underneath are engaged in a casual conversation - one of them keeping an eye out towards the singers above. The meticulous brushwork, distinctive to Toor’s signature style, absorbs all attention. Slight imperfections of the people depicted, such as blemishes and scars, become more evident on closer examination.

In comparison to the crowded compositions discussed earlier, “Best Friends” is a much more tranquil piece that portrays two men seated next to a ledge in a well-off apartment - sipping on cocktails, smoking and indulging in a private conversation. It’s quite noticeable that both appear to connect to each other at a deeper level and the strong bond that they share makes them feel less vulnerable against hostility and oppression from the world outside: despite being miles away from home.

Salman’s proficiency at somewhat concealing the radical nature of his art in the guise of ludic eccentricity or the stylized whimsicality of the everyday is simply overwhelming.

At this show, also compelling was the manner in which Toor displayed all of his pieces - enclosed in sleek and simple wooden frames,irrespective of them being painted on canvas or panels. This encapsulation of paintings adds to the dignity, honour and protecton that he wants to give to his creations.

Talal Faisal is an artist based in Lahore