IN THE SUMMER OF 2019, when Salman Toor ushered me into his studio in Bushwick, a neighbourhood in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn, a tiny section of his wall caught my eye. There, he had pinned a disparate collection of references for paintings he was working on for his India debut, in December, at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery. I Know a Place, the title of the Pakistani artist’s exhibition, depicts a surreptitious utterance between a pair of queer men who desire each other’s flesh, friendship and company, away from the violence of prying eyes.
For years, fans of Toor in the United States, and his global admirers on Instagram, have hailed him as a contemporary revolutionary, owing, perhaps, to the principal subjects of his paintings: queer South Asian men finding solace both in solitude and amid queer company, while also being susceptible to bouts of loneliness and longing. But Toor confounds our imposition of specificity upon his craft, since specificity begets fetishisation, an impulse that his American and European audiences might be prone to. When I asked Toor how a showing in India would differ from an exhibition in the United States, he said,cc “It will be with much more ease, much more subtlety, that I can speak to a South Asian audience and express things which might be lost upon a Western audience.” The subtlety of Toor’s paintings subverts this fetishisation. His queens are neither bathed in perpetual joy nor shrouded in a recurring doom. Each of Toor’s compositions is a challenge to a binarised understanding of South Asian queerness that geographical distance can confer upon his admirers. To witness Toor’s paintings is to witness the spectrum of queer lives, not its archetypes.