There are two rooms, connected, yet far from each other. The first one looks like this: a high table covered with tubes, brushes and other art material, a settee, a slim wooden shelf filled with books and paint cans, a rug, two stools, several canvases, a pair of sneakers, almost dried flowers in a jar, high ceiling, white walls and ample light filtered through large windows.
The other room looks small, with unpainted walls, two charpoys with basic bedding folded on one and spread on the other, a cheap wall clock, a ceiling fan and a cement slab on one side loaded with old boxes, useless cartons, a formless bag and some other such junk material. It seems the second room does not receive natural light, so a patch of reflected light can be seen on the floor between the two beds.
Both these interiors in a way belong to Salman Toor. The first is a photograph of his own studio in New York City and the second is a servant quarter in Lahore painted by him. It would be difficult to find a link between the two visuals and spaces except by assuming that the view of one room was rendered while the painter was working at the other location.
This division of spaces is not unusual for a large number of people who survive in two places simultaneously. Without much trouble they move between separate spheres of sorts: physical, psychological and socio-economic; living within the circle of their close friends, family members and individuals from the same class, visiting similar houses adorned with identical set of items and employing a common mode of communication: English. At the same time, they have to make contact with their cooks, butlers, drivers, gardeners, guards, maids and other household staff: Minions, who serve their masters but survive on the periphery, living in small rooms, conversing in a different tongue and possessing objects which are either thrown away or are of low quality.
In a society, a person has to deal with ‘others’ who are not only different in terms of language, race or religion but in class too. For many, these household helps are devoid of character, feeling, respect and independent thinking. In some cases they are treated like pieces of furniture, and their presence or needs are easily ignored while their employers are busy socialising with their family and friends or in their professional pursuits. Besides this condescension, these workers are at times victimised, abused and exploited by the employers.
Salman Toor hasn’t attempted to bridge the gap between the two sections of society but his paintings are a means to understand the ‘others’ who exist in the same surroundings. The first step towards comprehending someone else is to start acknowledging his existence and, in Toor’s exhibition (Close Quarters, held from Oct 21-30, 2014 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), one could find three canvases in which the artist had painted servant quarters. The details of their humble abodes, the condition of tiny shared spaces, a sense of suspended time made these canvases not the rooms of three specific servants — Ramzan, Rafiq and Ali — but generic areas without a sense of individuality or identity. Just the way these people are referred to with single names, without a surname or a cast denominator.
At some places, Toor seems to merge the two worlds. Along with exhibiting three paintings depicting their own rooms, in other works (The Bartender, The Picnic and The Maid with Sleeping Boy) the household helpers occupy the same space as their masters, either filling up their glasses, taking back empty trays or entering the bedroom with cleaning stuff while the young owner was still lying on the bed. , like the maid with her mop and detergents, gazing at the frail sleepy boy. On one level, workers at home enjoy greater power, privilege and pleasure when they are with the children in the absence of the grownups.
Toor does not only bring these two parts of a society closer, he blends other diversities too. Looking at his compositions and constructions, one becomes aware of the presence of European painting, especially the Old Masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. In works such as The Picnic, Halloween Party and The Bartender, the background and postures of the figures or the arrangement of various pictorial elements remind one of the art of the past. In a way, the works besides connecting contemporary (characters using or holding mobile phones) to classical visuals, also links the local imagery with the Western iconography.
Perhaps the most remarkable case is Halloween Party, in which grotesque and grandeur does melt. Costumes ranging from Central Asian headdress to Indian turban, and from English skirts to local shirt as well as Chitrali cap, convey how culture is not a uniform, confined or homogenous entity today. It includes not only a diversity of ethnicity but comprises distant influences.
All these matters may not be new for a person living in the 21st century and exposed to constant broadcast on television. Yet an ordinary citizen seeks an artist’s position on political and global issues in order to make his work relevant to his milieu. There have been examples of Goya, Caravaggio, David and Manet, who used references of history or relied on their imagination in order to express and examine the political situation of a society.
In Toor’s work there are traces and codes. By juxtaposing the poor and the affluent (The Party); showcasing the social distance (Arshad and Ramzan) and conveying the sense of absurdity and grotesque in the Halloween Party, the artist hints at the hidden sexuality amongst separate genders of same and different classes. The young maid looking at the naked torso of the boy on bed, a youthful servant holding female figurines of porcelain with an intense and longing look, and the beds of servant who just left them unkempt, all suggest implicit sensuous connections that take place in a home surrounded by people of different groups and sexes.
Close Quarters confirms the presence of a painter who enjoys the practice of putting pigment on the surface and somehow this act becomes another metaphor — loaded with pleasure and coated with history.