Blending Out

Salman Toor’s paintings reveal a spectrum of queer lives

Salman Toor has been hailed for his paintings featuring queer South Asian men finding solace both in solitude and amid queer company. cheryl mukherji for the caravan
01 April, 2020

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.

There is, of course, a specificity to Toor’s ambition: it is an ambition driven by a desire to nuance the presentation of South Asian queerness. In “The Queen,” for instance, a queer man is adorned in finery such as an organza dupatta, a crown, and a necklace by other queer men, who dress him in the front yard of a home in Lahore—refashioned from the memory of Toor’s own family home. It is a fabulous, rousing scene of inclusion and joy set in a city perceived elsewhere as one where such queer festivity would be improbable. In another painting, titled “Afterparty,” a brown queen has deliberately disengaged from a group of white and brown queens dancing in a New York apartment, somewhere in the East Village, New York’s “gaybourhood.” Geographically, Toor makes a case against reading Lahore and New York as queer purgatory and paradise, respectively. His chiaroscuro approach mingles them and presents them, almost in a panoptic fashion, upon the same canvas, so that his audiences can refrain from imposing a specific reading either upon his subjects, the places they inhabit and the queerness that a specific geography demands of them.