The power at play in Salman Toor's paintings.
Salman Toor is a Pakistan-born artist now living in New York City. It is likely I first saw his painting Paradise Villas in a 2012 article on Pakistan by the writer Aatish Taseer. The article had appeared in Foreign Policy. In that piece, Taseer had spoken of new fiction that, even while seemingly casting light on different aspects of Pakistani society, also succeeded in “[expressing] the country’s terrible underlying brutality.” And then he had mentioned paintings: “The young painter Salman Toor, for instance, invariably uses scenes of apparent merriment, of laughter, of frolic, to hint at darker, more menacing aspects of his society, such as rage and violence, cruelty and oppression.” Taseer’s example was Paradise Villas, which had been painted only a few months earlier.
The young and beautiful protagonists of this remarkable painting are self-absorbed; their eyes are closed, their postures relaxed in a near-ecstatic swoon. They have been painted with a delicate fragility; the surface of their clothing has soft folds and creases. The crucial detail is that, although these well-heeled protagonists don’t look at us, they aren’t beyond scrutiny. They are open to our gaze and, more importantly, they are being regarded by the grimy figures at the margins of this painting, the servants. Unlike the youthful couple, the two servants—one approaching with an ice bucket on a silver tray, and the other squatting on the ground at the back—are dressed in plain, traditional Pakistani garb. They lack definition and color but their presence is vital. They give the painting its air of social tension.
For Taseer, the hint of a darkening sky is one feature we can point at to justify our sense of unease when we look at the painting; while that is true, the artist’s real trick is that he ties the viewer, in silent complicity, to the servants. Like them, we are looking. Our emotional response to the image is uncertain, even mysterious, because the servants are not seen as clearly as the protagonists in the foreground. They are a social presence, marginal and slightly inscrutable. Their intentions are unclear. And we, as the viewers of the painting, are made to share that space even when, as viewers of art in galleries or on the walls of our homes, we are aligned more closely with the clueless couple. This split, I believe, is the true source of the unease we feel. This split is a social split—there is trouble brewing in paradise.
The painting now hangs in Taseer’s small apartment on the Upper West Side. He told me recently that he had bought the painting soon after his father was killed. The writer’s father was Salman Taseer, a prominent politician and businessman, assassinated in Islamabad in 2011 for his progressive politics, including his support of minorities. The painting, for the younger Taseer, was “a reminder of the menace that always underlay the hedonism of the English-speaking classes in Pakistan.” He added, “I once thought the precariousness of that life was uniquely Pakistani. I now see that it is as real in India as in Pakistan, so the meaning of the painting has grown over time.”
A year ago, Salman Toor posted a picture on Instagram of his painting East 5th Street. A young brown man, a long colorful scarf thrown around his neck, stands in a doorway, blowing smoke. He is a dandy. We recognize him as that also because the other figure in the painting is a large, ruddy NYPD policeman who, unlike the young man, isn’t even wearing a coat. Is it a winter day? The youth’s coat and scarf would indicate that. Also the bare branches of the slim tree partly visible on the left. But the policeman, a tough New Yorker, has disdained warm clothing.
I liked the painting and immediately wanted it for myself. I saw East 5th Street as a statement about brown style flowing through the streets of New York City. The dandy and the cop weren’t looking at each other, but it was difficult for me to imagine either one of them alone in the painting. There would be no story. The dandy’s style exists in opposition to the idea of the normal as defined by the state: the white policeman with his uniform stands in an asymmetrical power relationship with the immigrant Other. I went to the artist’s studio, not without timidity, and learned that Toor himself lived on East 5th Street. He said that he had painted the picture on a whim, but he liked the result so much that he started painting other works like it, paintings that were “direct, unplanned, autobiographical, and illustrative.”
I told Toor that I would like to buy the work. He didn’t seem to take up my suggestion. He was going to have a show in Pakistan, and I got the sense that all the paintings I was looking at in the studio were headed there. I imagined someone else in Karachi or Lahore liking the painting as much as I did and buying it. I saw images of the show. A few months passed. Once again, Toor posted an image of the painting on social media, and I, risking bravery, wrote in the comments section that the painting was mine. And, soon enough, it was.
My 8-year-old son was one day looking carefully at East 5th Street hanging on our living room wall. I asked him what he saw, and he offered a reading: “The policeman is going to arrest the Indian guy who is probably a Muslim.” Precisely. Except not. Here again we cannot ignore the issue of class. He is not a working-class migrant in a dark doorway fumbling for his wallet or his phone. Toor’s young immigrant, with his elegance, exudes insouciance. Blowing smoke in the air with such nonchalance, I choose to think that he is untouchable.