Photos by Micah Pegues
Salman Toor is a 34 year-old visual artist from Lahore, Pakistan. He lives between New York City and Lahore. His work oscillates between autobiography, art history and pop culture.
Q: When did you first start drawing?
A: I was one those early freak cases so my parents had to prepare themselves for an unusual career path. I drew at home, I drew in class. I drew when I was being punished for drawing.
In my middle class household in Lahore, I was surrounded by faux-rococo furniture, cheap prints of Victorian portraiture like Gainsborough’s, framed prints of seventeenth-century Mughal/Persian Miniature paintings, and Arabic Quranic Calligraphy. All of those seemingly unrelated aesthetics conspired to create ideas of beauty and identity for me.
Q: What has your artistic path been like thus far?
A: From my uptight colonial all-boys high school in Lahore, I flew straight to the cornfields of Ohio where got a BFA from Ohio Wesleyan University. I took a year off after that and discovered that marketing for an art magazine or indeed any kind of office job depressed me fatally. Then I decided to go to Pratt for an MFA. I found most of the my New York friends there. After Pratt, fortunately, I never had to work in an office and without really realizing it I was able to support myself making paintings.
Q: Who and what inspires you?
A: In New York, I see myself proliferating the stories of brown bodies, of assimilation, of belonging, of rituals that unite and divide us.
For brown bodies—faces—just to be presented and to be present in the slipstream of cultural forms and sound bites that come out of New York City is extraordinary. There needs to be more of it. There is such a great desire for varied representation of people from my region who live in America as first or second generation Americans. It is a deeply rewarding and satisfying job to create, in some way, that representation through autobiography or otherwise.
The traditional picture-making skill of the pre-industrial world inspires me. The preciousness and unbridled illustrative aspect of graphic Miniature illumination and the pagan heritage of oil painting in Europe from the fourteenth-century onward are a never-ending study for me.
My own positioning between places which we designate East and West is an amusing point from which to look at the world and the histories of both Indian and European painting, both of which are a part of my work.
Q: What do you hope to do with your art?
A: Painting is a process of self definition for me. As an outsider in multiple worlds which become more and more entangled and complex.
Q: How did your art change when you moved to Brooklyn?
A: In the beginning, I resisted the influence of Brooklyn culture. I had moved my studio to Bushwick because the space was cheaper and my studio building had unsurpassed amenities. I felt that Bushwick was pretentiously self-obsessed, self-consciously edgy. But it grew on me somehow, the graffiti, the long-residing, long resisting hispanic locals in the overpriced vaudeville atmosphere brimming with people who looked like lifestyle magazines and Instagram feeds, the special honesty and shabby-chic aesthetic of small businesses began to touch me. I began to succumb to the vibe of this new Montmartre of the internet age, of the age of a countless profusion of images. Brooklyn helped me, in the end, to see my place in this profusion of competing images and identity.
Q: How long does it take you to finish your pieces?
A: If it’s a small imaginary piece it can take as little as 3 days. If, however, I am in an illustrative Baroque kind of mood, it can take up to a month or several months.
Q: Your paintings all have a strong human/body appearance. Why is that? What intrigues you?
A: I grew up drawing and painting and thinking of the body, the body as a tool of meditation, the body as the site of memory, fantasy, and sensuality. I’m not really attracted to pure abstraction. When I draw, my wrist or elbow naturally traces the lines of a body though the image can move between abstraction and representation.
Q: You paint both familial and mundane situations. Can you elaborate on that?
A: Years ago, I used to get my compositions from local ads in Pakistan. Fashion ads and ads for appliances, new housing schemes etc. Ads as illustrations of aspiration, of people’s wishes were something that defined a society so completely for me that, in a place where identity is a constant subject for questioning and art, I couldn’t resist using them. Ads as reality improved, more vivid, more beautiful. These ads contained a lot of the seemingly mundane situations which I saw as a parallel to genre painting, first started in Northern Europe in the Reformation years. I like to transform those seemingly mundane situations into something more prescient.
Maybe some of it comes from reading. I’m a student of Chekhov's stories and contemporary fiction out of Pakistan like Daniyal Muennuddin’s short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and Moni Mohsin’s comedies. I think of the pictures as short stories where the emphasis falls on unexpected places, seemingly mundane situations become illuminating or interesting ones. It’s a way of dealing in clichés and daring to do them well, and liking them too.
Q: Can you talk about the other motifs and themes in your work?
A: Sometimes, I use text and figures to carve out a psychological space or site of fantasy, memory, and deconstruction. The text varies. It can be poetry as well as Persio-Arabic-English gibberish, memories of graffiti dribbled in alleyways and mosques, calligraphic protest banners and shop signs in Pakistan. These are peppered with elements of graphic design, comic strip, and advertising as in the Sale! Pow! Boom! signs, as well as thought and speech bubbles. Contemporary poetry of exile (particularly by me friend Hasan Mujtaba) points to the shape-shifting nature of longing and belonging, a fruitful unmooring from communities of origin. I try to create an interface between seemingly divergent understandings of an over-connected world; developing societies seething in turmoil and the microcosms of cultures like Brooklyn’s art scene.
The autobiography in the work encapsulates questions that are important to me: Does having a wide array of experience from Lahore to New York make my idea of beauty a new one here in the United States? What do these widely ranging exposures to cultures that famously don’t mix well do to my morality? Does it matter?
Q: Why are the fine arts like painting so important in today’s artistic world?
A: In terms of who is painted/portrayed or who has painted the image, painting has remained special, high above other image machineries such as photojournalism and Instagram and Facebook. In 17th century India, painting was an aid to the memory of the grandeur of royal ancestors and allegories of faith. In Europe, at the same time, painting was a Christian tool of storytelling, a means to portraiture as well as a kind of entertainment, a conjuring trick; it was an aid to religious feeling, to devotion. Today, at its best, painting is important because it is an aid to discussion, often discussion of loaded and difficult social issues.
Q: What materials do you use?
A: My first allegiance is to traditional materials, Oil on Canvas or fine Belgian Linen. Or a sanded panel of plywood. I’ve done video and collage as well.
Q: Do you think your relationship to art is different as a person of color? As a group that is not traditionally well represented?
A: As a brown artist in America, it is difficult to be bored, apolitical, or apathetic. To be colored, for me, is to accommodate the South Asian cultural rituals with which I grew up and to connect and reconcile them with modernity, with American culture, tracing the arc of my own optimism or pessimism about this project of synthesis. This project moves between being an act of defiance, a protest, a resistance to the fixed and sometimes cruel idea that cultures and identity are inelastic, static.
Through my art, I enjoy giving dignity, pleasure of privilege, and catharsis (largely by giving it to myself) to types of people who (perhaps because of their color or their ancestral culture) are presumed to lack dignity, individuality. And there is so much exciting work to do!