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Toor painting
Toor painting The Arrival

Salman Toor, The Arrival, oil on panel, 2019

Salman Toor runs the appalling risk of becoming a cult icon in his home country, a sad misfortune that has befallen a few Pakistani artists in the last few decades who have seen meteoric upswings in the western art industry. But Salman Toor we hope will not go down that rabbit hole. For some reason, there is an earnest yearning for him to be like the characters in his paintings; guileless, naïve, un-ingenuous.

It is the current show at the Whitney Museum in New York titled “How Will I Know” (November 13, 2020-April 4, 2021) that has catapulted Toor to the rarefied stratosphere of recognition. In his mid-thirties, he has evolved a narrative that is so beguiling, unpretentious and unforced that it seems to have sashayed out of his genetic framework. For the US audience and the critics, Toor’s work ticks off all right boxes; brown, queer, diasporic, searching for an identity. There seems to be a plethora of thematic concerns to tie them up in knots and keep them engaged. But what about the Pakistani audience? Do we get a privileged point of view?

The fact that Toor is brown means nothing to us. But we must remember that Toor paints brown people in his paintings, not himself. He paints the epistemic and phenomenological space between the lived reality and the ideation of it and he can do it without falsity because of his ethnicity and his role as a social archivist. So, at that moment, whether he is an uncomfortable, diasporic, brown, queer person shuttling between New York and Lahore becomes eroded to a certain degree. What is left however is the emotional quotient of the person in that narrative and it is as authentic as it is as joyful and compelling and heartbreaking and lonely. That is why his figures are so real and yet so nebulous – fragile, funny, tender, skeletal in their physique as if they would be decimated by iniquitous forces around them, holding on to the little happy moments of life by the skin of their teeth.

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