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In conversation with Salman Toor

Salman Toor is Pakistani born artist based in New York City. With a Bachelors in Fine Art (Painting and Drawing) from the Ohio Wesleyan University and a Masters in Fine Art (Painting) from The Pratt Institute, the artist has had multiple exhibitions worldwide. His most recent solo show at the Canvas gallery, ‘ Short Stories’  brought him to Karachi and gave us a chance to converse with the brilliant painter.



JA: Lets start from the beginning, what made you decide to take up art as a subject and later on as a career?


ST: I was always drawing and painting so it was always understood that I would be a working artist, picture-maker, etc.  So no decision involved.


JA: You grew in Lahore, how did the culture play a role in your work?


ST: The art bubble of Pakistan inspired me. I looked up to artists I’d see in ‘Painting in Pakistan’ type of coffee-table books and try to imitate them, like most young artists do. I’d read about their lives and try to recreate those perceptive, important-seeming moments in my own life. I’d hear more realistic stories about artist’s lives sometimes when I had the privilege to talk to people who collected their work and who sometimes took me with them when they went to buy from the artists’ studios.

I loved Colin David and Khalid Iqbal and Ijazul Hassan and Amrita Shergil. I didn’t really have a particular subject that I wanted to paint over and over again but I responded most to the impulse to transform things by painting them as beautiful.


JA: What made you decide to move to the US? What was the transition like and how do you think the change in atmosphere has affected your work?


ST: My high school encouraged going to the U.S. for college and as soon as I got a scholarship I thought it was ordained that I should go.

I didn’t know much about Western Art History before then. I used to look at How to Draw figures and sometimes have friends model for me before I went to college abroad. I realized when my international education began, that I didn’t know very much and the world is filled with talented, brilliant people and that gave me a sense of fatalism, which in turn made me value honesty and simplicity.


JA: Your work is a unique take on traditional painting. Is there any particular style or artist that has influenced you? If so, please tell us how?


ST: I look at lots of 17th and 18th century European painters. The floridness and vividness of their styles appeals to me. The overcrowded Baroque compositions of Rubens, the dignity of the subjects in Van Dyck, the lushness of romance and sensuality in Watteau, the decorative brilliance of Veronese. It is a pre-industrial way of looking, a foreign language of picture making. I internalized that way of looking and working, sometimes through mimesis and other times through experiment and invention.


JA: Text has been a part of your work for some time now, could you explain its usage and importance to the work? Also, tell us about your latest Boom series at Canvas gallery?


ST: These panels cut into Boom! Pow! Sale! Signs mimic explosive exclamations that usually accompany ads, hence the ‘Boom’ series. I think of these shapes as sudden revelations, popping up. The text is Urdu gibberish, based on memory and translated diary excerpts. I’m a trained calligraphist and love writing in both English and Urdu in my journals. There is a sense of the personal hidden or whitewashed, covered with drawings and done in a thicker pigment.


JA: Your work is filled with figures narrating various stories and particular to your recent show at canvas, the works followed a similar colour palette. How do these aspects of your work help voice your concerns?


ST: I use pinks and olive greens in this show simply because I’m attracted to those colors and it makes happy to see them next to each other.


JA: Could you talk a little about your recent solo at Canvas, how does it differ from your previous work?


ST: It differs in that I’ve decided to show two ways of looking at fiction and autobiography in this show: one through painting pictures and the other through the Boom series, which is also a kind of painting.


JA: Could you tell us a bit about the Comic Project?


ST: The comic project is ongoing. It is a short graphic novel about the a few days in the life of a middle class family in Lahore with a young boy in high school as the protagonist.


JA: What is one of the most memorable things that have happened in your career so far?


ST: Every show in Karachi at Canvas Gallery is my newest most memorable-moment. The love and appreciation I receive from my followers gives me incredible energy.



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