Salman Toor describes his work as “fantasies mixing autobiography with inspiration from literary fiction, such as the stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin and the short stories of Anton Chekhov”. The autobiographical element in the oil paintings exhibited at Canvas Gallery is hard to miss. Most male figures in them resemble the artist — at least partially if not entirely.
The short story aspect is also easily discernible. Toor takes elements from previous eras of art-making, particularly from classical portraiture by the European masters, and couples them with the portrayal of mundane activities. The artworks that result from this combination are anything but mundane. They are laden with symbols and packed with secrets, much like the modernist short stories of New Zealand-based author Katherine Mansfield.
From among the works in the exhibition, a few stand out more than others for the mysteries and meanings lurking beneath the surface. In Housekeeper, for example, a servant stares absent-mindedly at a golden trophy sitting next to a bottle of water on a table. Behind him, orange curtains part to reveal boys mid-play. The juxtaposition of action and inaction, on the one hand, and emotions and the lack thereof on the other, makes one wonder about the contents of the painting. Is it a comment on the hopes and aspirations of a housekeeper who perhaps yearns for the kind of life the boys in the background have? Is he planning something sinister? Or is he just resigned and lost in thoughts unrelated to what is going on around him? Toor does not offer any ready answers.
His characters seem to veer between reality and a dreamlike state. They look blithe, gentle and unconcerned, yet their impassive appearances seem to hide powerful emotions. Latent emotional tensions are perhaps most strongly reflected in a work titled The Punishment. It depicts a classroom where a boy is standing on a chair. He is visibly worried about the possible reaction of his classmates to his plight but only a couple of them cast skewed glances at him while most others, including the female teacher, remain unconcerned.
A similar scene with psychological possibilities and premonitions unfolds in Playground that depicts a boy running away as two others beat up a third one in a school playground. Some other boys can be seen conversing with each other nearby, entirely unconcerned about the fight. Two members of the school staff can also be spotted in the background. They are talking to each other rather indifferently. The painting, much like The Punishment, seems to underscore the notions of inclusion and exclusion in settings that bring together people from disparate backgrounds.
Sleeping Maulvi shows a similar lack of association and bonding. It depicts a bearded man resting on a couch in a living room under a painting of a wild hunt. An empty chair in front of him suggests that someone is to sit on it and receive their lessons from him. Just to his right, but hidden from his view, a young woman is looking at a young man who is reclining on the floor — are the two arguing over something? On a table beside him, a stone bust is placed next to two glass vases while a woman seems to be sweeping the floor in their backdrop — is she a painting within the painting or a servant working in another part of the house?
Most importantly, what is the relationship of the sleeping man with everything and everyone around him? Works like this – that juxtapose fact with fiction, transience with permanence and belonging with alienation – were complemented at the exhibition by text-based panels Toor has created. They carry poetry and gibberish, seemingly written in Urdu, as well as excerpts from his own diary. These, however, add or subtract little from the impact of his paintings that, indeed, look like short stories — concise and full of meaning.
This was originally published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.