People & Society

Self-censorship has always been there in the Subcontinent: Salman Toor

Updated 10 Mar, 2018 01:02pm
Komail Aijazuddin (left) and Salman Toor (right) | Photos by Murtaza Ali, White Star
Komail Aijazuddin (left) and Salman Toor (right) | Photos by Murtaza Ali, White Star

The Pakistani art scene is buzzing with new voices. Young artists are not only breaking new ground with their art, they are also taking older forms and reimagining and reinventing them. Salman Toor and Komail Aijazuddin are both at the vanguard of this latest spur of activity and experimentation in Pakistani art. Raised in Lahore, both were together at the iconic Aitchison College, before going to the United States for higher studies. Their education and training abroad has helped them look critically at the local art tradition and bring in influences and practices that are only adding to the variety of artwork coming out of Pakistan.

The two painters are heavily focused on painting human figures in their work, but from two different perspectives. If one is rendering idealised characters, the other is twisting the real to make it look both grotesque and relatable. The Herald asked Toor and Aijazuddin to sit down together recently to discuss various issues regarding their own art practice in particular and Pakistani art in general. The excerpts follow.

Komail Aijazuddin. Let’s start with what projects you are currently working on?

Salman Toor. I am working on a project for Lahore Biennale. It’s going to be more than a painting — an object-based collage. That is what I usually try to do in a public show. I push myself and create something different. I will be having a show at Aicon Gallery [in New York] later this year. What about you?

Aijazuddin. I have a show coming up in March at Studio O in Lahore and also trying to work with the Lahore Biennale to create a public sculpture. One thing about doing something like public art is that it is so much bigger than one’s usual scale.

Toor. Yes! It has to be exciting and it has to be experimental. A little bit crazy. Also you have to screw it up a little bit. But it is very different than working for a show in your studio.

Aijazuddin. A lot of people don’t know a lot about the daily life of an artist. I know that before I turned towards creating art as a day job, I was very sceptical of making a living through it. Was there a point for you when it stopped being a hobby and turned into a profession?

Toor. Yes. When I decided or when I was told that I was going to be on my own financially, it did make a huge difference. I really had to work like I never had before. I was never forced to do it [before].

Aijazuddin. Contrary to popular belief, working as an artist is a job. I find I have to treat it that way otherwise it can take over too much of my life. What about you?

Toor. Totally, it’s a job but it’s also playtime. There is a sense of play that I feel while painting. I can’t let it get corrupted by pressure or by [what] people experience [while working] in an office.

Salman Toor
Salman Toor

Aijazuddin. I remember your work on class structures and servant quarters. Even in your most recent show at [Karachi’s] Canvas Gallery, many of the paintings were about the tensions between economic classes — the way they have interacted historically. Were you conscious of this class conflict when you were working on those paintings?

Toor. It started as a conscious project in 2014 when I had a show called Close Quarters at Canvas Gallery. I was, however, unconscious of it when [I was working for my show] called Short Stories that happened in 2017. [Paintings in the latter show resulted from] the way of looking that I have developed. I tried to encapsulate locally produced literature, mostly English fiction, in those paintings. I wanted to translate fiction into the picturesque. Are you conscious of themes in your work?

Aijazuddin. In a sense. [My work] primarily deals with ideas like blasphemy and religious iconography. When I think about producing a work – here or anywhere – it usually always starts by thinking about faith and what [faith] represents. My work originates from a conscious decision to engage with these ideas, to figure out the ways people consider faith to be of paramount importance, particularly in Pakistan. What is your faith; where it comes from; how you practice it; what does it look like when you practice it? You are always aware of these questions even when they are only implied [in your day-to-day life].

They are more than caricatures. The types of people that I use in my work are character actors. They are tools to capture characters [found] in literary fiction.

Toor. I think the majority [of people] largely just assume what their faith is. [Maybe you think otherwise] because your point of view differs from theirs.

Aijazuddin. I don’t think it’s about individual beliefs; it’s mainly just about asking questions or talking about faith. It’s not really about convincing [others of my point-of-view].

Toor. There is a lot of red and gold in your paintings. These colours are so bridal. How did you come to use them?

Aijazuddin. Yes, I suppose they are very bridal! It goes back to my interest in religious art. A lot of religious art – through the Byzantine times [to the 21st century] – uses valuable materials. People have always held [their faith] very dearly to them so they have used a lot of gold [in religious iconography] because that was the most expensive material around. I found out that using gold was the most immediate way to connect a contemporary art viewer with historical religious iconography that I wanted to talk about.

The red came in by mistake. When you put gold leaf onto a surface, you are encouraged to paint the surface red first so that it looks warm to offset gold which is usually thin and cooler. When I was in graduate school, one day one of my professors came in [to the studio] when [one of my] portraits was at the red stage. It was yet to be painted. He said, “Oh, I really like that” and I suddenly started considering my unfinished work to be complete. I have found that the limited colour palette allows me room to manoeuvre.

Toor. A lot of human figures you have painted are very regal. They are perfect and beautiful and they are young too. Is that deliberate?

Aijazuddin. Yes. The idealisation of my figures probably has a lot to do with my interest in Greek and Roman art that I studied at the undergraduate level. It also has its origin in the idea that when you are talking about religion, you have to use perfection as an ideal.

The subjects of my painting are also not meant to be real people. I use gold leaf in my paintings [because I want to create] the light of divinity around my subjects. Their imperfections, therefore, disappear and they become the most idealised version of themselves because they are, literally, not of this world. It’s also a lot easier to paint a perfect figure than an imperfect one.

Komail Aijazuddin
Komail Aijazuddin

Conversely, your recent work highlights aspects that make your human subjects imperfect. Like when you paint their pimples or the dirt underneath their fingernails. You are interested in making them grotesque in a way. They are not just real, worldly, but in some cases they have elements of caricature. Do you agree?

Toor. They are more than caricatures. The types of people that I use in my work are character actors. They are tools to capture characters [found] in literary fiction. I want to create local types of people who are recognisable to, for example, my household servant and to myself so that both kinds of viewers look at the painting and love it. There were lots of servants of my house in a painting that [recently went] to a show. They found [their depictions] really funny. I found their reaction to be one of the most rewarding things — as if everyone was involved in [making the painting].

Blemishes are lovely because they give you a chance to paint them. In a strange sense, pimples can be very sensual in paintings. They are sort of a sculpture on the skin. They give a weird kind of profile to a particular kind of person. They are in a way the polar opposite to how you depict figures.

Aijazuddin. [Mine show] the idea of reverence and [that is why I make them] as perfect, other-worldly individuals. That contrast between us is highly interesting because you were the only other figurative painter for the longest time that I could look towards in our generation. There weren’t many doing the kind of work that we do. That’s a pity because I always wanted more people [to be doing figurative art].

I envy a lot of people who went to the NCA [National College of Arts, Lahore], particularly to its miniature department because they all worked within the same [artistic] vocabulary [of miniatures]. When one of them pushed the vocabulary slightly further, it worked to the benefit of every other artist because then they could move it even further. This has not always been the case with contemporary figurative Pakistani art. You or I may look towards the works of Colin David or Shakir Ali or Ijaz ul Hassan as well as to that of those who did fantastic figurative work in the 1980s. I wish there had been more people doing figurative art since then, as has been the case with neo-miniature.

Do you look towards the works of other Pakistani artists as far as painting figures is concerned?

Playground II by Salman Toor |courtesy canvas gallery
Playground II by Salman Toor |courtesy canvas gallery

Toor. Not to contemporary ones. A lot of inspiration for the things I create comes from my way of looking. I have internalised a vocabulary. I feel like I am just catching scenes all the time. I am always looking at the arrangements of people: what they are wearing, how they are talking; how I can use them for picture-making. It’s called tableau vivant which is like a cluster of very beautifully arranged costume figures. It sounds like a very outlandish or stupid kind of thing to do in today’s world.

Aijazuddin. Did you ever feel the need to justify your focus on human figure?

Toor. It isn’t justifiable. The West has had a trail of vivid [human] imagery for such a long time, the museums there are so overloaded with grand, great works, that I can see why people there are not crazy about going back [in art history] or revisiting it. I consider myself separate from that [tradition]. I feel like I have a [duty] to consider all that as exotic and absorb it [in my work].

Aijazuddin. Why do you find the approach to the human figure in Pakistani art different from that in the West?

Toor. Because our South Asian art approached the figure through miniature painting which is very different — a tradition of family albums or heirlooms for private viewing only.

Aijazuddin. That’s an interesting point about miniature as an art form. What is noteworthy is that neither of us is trained in miniature art because we did not study at [NCA’s miniature] department. Do you see a certain influence that miniature as an art form has on Pakistani art?

Toor. It’s very relevant here. Its [influence is] instantly recognisable from far away.

Aijazuddin. I do agree with the idea that miniature is instantly recognisable as a Muslim art form that creates a link between modern-day Pakistani art and Persian culture. I think that’s part of the reason the genre is as successful as it is. But I’ve often wondered why other genres haven’t developed the same way.

Colin David was a huge influence on me and I know on you also because we were both in his figure drawing class. I always thought his themes and the way he approached art, althought not miniatures, were very contemporary.

Toor. [Yes, his work] was very contemporary. What we probably ended up liking about him was that his work was so smooth and really fun to look at. He did not go for gravitas and that is the kind of painting that attracts me.

Aijazuddin. [His work] was so well executed, so differently painted and so differently imagined from the works of a lot of other artists who were working around the same time.

Toor. Totally. And in terms of genre, the global art market is very tricky [for Pakistani artists who want] to be fun or frivolous or sexy or ironic because there are too many headlines that get in the way.

Aijazuddin. Do you think any new art forms are coming up?

Toor. Yes, I think object-making and sculpture are coming up. I think a revival of picture-making [is happening] among young people. [It is resulting in] vivid paintings and figurative art. I am seeing a lot of art by young people which has human bodies or human faces or human stories in it. What really turns me on about that is that it is local. It is kind of self-unconscious [about its acceptability in the] global art market. It is not trying to sell brownness to white people. There should be more of it.

Aijazuddin. I know that a lot of people reading this would know about such artists as Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Imran Qureshi. How do you view their influence on younger artists?

Toor. They have all been a huge influence on everyone. But I think the kind of work that you and I are doing, however, traces its lineage to Raja Ravi Varma and Amrita Sher-Gil (both pioneers of modern Indian art). The last person in this lineage is [Indian artist] Bhupen Khakhar who is another imaginative figurative painter. What we are doing, in a sense, has happened before [in the Subcontinent]. You can [get] your artistic legacy from any culture that you like and do with it as you please as long as what you are doing pleases you.

Aijazuddin. Yes, the idea of being able to appropriate elements from different cultures and use them in your work [has always existed]. Any kind of tension in that is usually robust in artists of post-colonial cultures. I was, for example, always questioned by American students who I went to college with about my interest in Western art. A lot of them would ask, “Why do you want to study the Renaissance or Baroque period? What is it about the Western artists that appeals to you?” [But Western art] is not outside my own art history. A lot of Western art is as much a part of my art history as miniature is or Hindu sculpture is. Different national movements notwithstanding, I think this [eclecticism] remains true [all over the world].

We both live in New York as well as in Lahore and we have studios in both cities. What are the pressures that you feel because of being in this situation?

Toor. In New York, [I have heard] clichés that people can easily give in to [about me] — like #brown, #Muslim. It has very much to do with our [Pakistani] nationality and our national interests.

Aijazuddin. [These perceptions] are not limited to the American art market but also to the rise of the global art markets, which affects us all. The other thing about the American art scene is that it has gone from being what used to be a global barometer of an international art scene to becoming something extremely particular to America.

But I agree with you, in that whenever foreigners look at Pakistan through different art forms, be it movies, literature or art, a lot of people also expect Pakistani artists to talk about extremism and politics. Do you think that [the artists] have a responsibility to do that?

Toor. It’s a clichéd statement that the artist should respond to their times and it’s sort of true. When people are honestly producing their work, they do end up responding to their time in one way or the other.

Silent Icon with Halo I by Komail Aijazuddin | courtesy artist
Silent Icon with Halo I by Komail Aijazuddin | courtesy artist

There is also a lot of pressure of expectations [exerted] by the consumers of art that is coming out of [our] region — as to what art should be about, what it should look like. Should it be a byline to the headlines? Should it resist the headlines? Or should it oppose the headlines? Many artists may have succumbed to this pressure. I do not think if it is necessarily a horrible thing.

Aijazuddin. What do you think about self-censorship? What do you think of not going into a certain place in art or in writing, particularly in Pakistan, out of say, fear of controversy or retribution?

Toor. A certain amount of self-censorship has always been there in the Subcontinent and it has bred a lot of creativity because you have to be very clever and subtle to say things that you do not want to say overtly and explicitly.

Aijazuddin. The idea that you have to work around the rules may have always existed. What I am asking about is not whether the artists of today are trying to invent new ways of going around the laws but whether they are avoiding engaging with certain topics at all because engaging with those topics would have a certain amount of repercussions.

Toor. I don’t know about other people but I can speak for myself and I don’t really censor myself. Not that I have something outrageously unlawful to say. I like to tell some nuanced stories. I think what you are talking about is art that wants to throw a stone at the window, like protest art.

Aijazuddin. Not necessarily protest art, but I am more interested in the idea of art not even subtly going to places that ordinarily it may. For me, the most obvious topic is religion. When I talk to different artists about religion, some of them talk in tangential ways. When I ask them why they would not like to talk about it more overtly, it seems they are too afraid to. That’s the kind of self-censorship that I am talking about — that as an artist you would not want to venture into certain subjects, not necessarily because you don’t want to go there but because you feel that you cannot.

Toor. Ideas such as religion and progress are highly loaded things to talk about, especially here. A lot of topics related to these subjects are against the law in this country. I actually think it is more challenging to work within the tradition and work within the laws — to try to reinvent the cultural forms, the mix of Islamic and Hindu traditions that have come down to us.

Aijazuddin. [Self-censorship] happens in different ways in the West but there it is more about form than content.

Toor. Completely. It also happens with reference to certain issues as well — for instance, Black Lives Matter.

Aijazuddin. We have been talking about the content of art but actually all art is also objects made for sale. Do you ever get used to the idea of people buying your work?

Toor. No, never. You?

Aijazuddin. Yeah, same. It feels like a giant conceit.

Toor. It’s also the realisation that [the selling of your work will put an end] to the pleasure that you were having when you were making it. [Your work will have to get out of the] control that you exercised on it when it used to be in your studio.

Aijazuddin. Does it matter to you where your work ends up? I have had people argue with me about the square-footage or the inches of a painting and that is possibly the only thing that has put me off selling.

Toor. The commodification of art is not the end of the world. Here is a piece of advice that I would like to give to all other artists working now — be professional. Once a piece of art leaves your studio, it does not matter if it ends up in an independent curator’s hands or if it ends up on someone’s wall. It also does not matter how they treat it, what they say about it or how they feel about it. A lot of the time, all that is completely unrelated to your art.

Aijazuddin. True. It also depends on where they are saying it. I mean, when we began working, when we both went to America, Shahzia Sikander was a huge presence in the American art scene. She was the only Pakistani whose work was taught to us in Art History 101 but, over the years, there has been an increase in the number of Pakistani artists whose practices are based here in Pakistan but who have become globally famous. When we were growing up, there was no real template as to what to do as an artist who wanted to work in America or here or in both places. Now, I feel that a lot of students are very comfortable working in Pakistan while knowing that they have an opportunity to have a global career.

Do you think that art students in Pakistan are aware of the global art market?

Toor. Not really. A lot of work needs to be done on those students [to make them aware of the global art market].

Toor and Aijazuddin in discussion
Toor and Aijazuddin in discussion

Aijazuddin. What other advice would you give to someone who wants to be an artist working in Pakistan?

Toor. You should only do art if you are prepared to be very poor for a very long time. But if working in your studio fulfils you, then keep working despite poverty. What about you?

Aijazuddin. Whenever I’m asked this, I always think of solitude. Being an artist is a very solitary existence. A hideous office filled with fluorescent lighting in the most awful building is still filled with people and there is a very different energy that comes about when you have people [around]. But if you are any kind of artist, you will eventually have to be alone for a long period of time. If you are okay with being alone for eight to 10 hours a day, and you are prepared to devote that amount of your life to your art practice, then you should go for it.

Toor. I would choose a studio over an office any day.

Aijazuddin. I’ve loved working in offices sometimes.

Toor: I just can’t. I love taking my colours and coffee to the studio and being alone there.

Aijazuddin. Did you ever think that you could be anything other than an artist?

Toor. No. I tried for a year but it did not work. Do you remember that?

Aijazuddin. I do! For me, I came to art after weighing other options.

Toor. Do you still love it?

Aijazuddin. Everyday.

Toor. Same.

Komail Aijazuddin is a visual artist and writer. Salman Toor is a painter who holds a master's in fine arts.

This was originally published in the Herald's February 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.