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Pakistani artist finds success painting what he's lived, felt and feared


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Pakistani born artist Salman Toor saw his career take off, ever since he made a sudden shift to painting what he's lived, felt, and sometimes even feared.

He gave special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston a tour of his ongoing exhibit.

It's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen : The paintings of Salman Toor are about worlds, worlds of lovers, of friends out on the town, and of family. But, in these works, often envelopes in emerald haze, there is even more at play, some ecstasy here, some danger there and in pieces like Back Lawn, there's a labyrinth of layers.

Salman Toor, Artist: There are many novels and movies about houses like this. And I wanted to kind of take the story of the family as the background of another story, which was going to be in the foreground of, which doesn't usually get told.

Jared Bowen : Front and center here, steps away from what could be a Pakistani family like his own, two men are entwined under a tent.

Salman Toor: Instead of being like a moment of fear and hiding, it's more like everything else is in the background, really, and this is actually the real story.

Jared Bowen : Call it No Ordinary Love, the title of this show exhibiting Toor's most recent work at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum outside Boston.

Salman Toor: Maybe about three or four years ago, I decided to make semi-autobiographical paintings that were about being more out as a gay man through my paintings than I was before.

Jared Bowen : They're a far cry from growing up in his native Pakistan, and from his early work, when Toor labored over paintings inspired by 17th and 18th century masters.

Coming out artistically meant coming into his own and launching into these largely nocturnal notions of queer life.

Gannit AnkorI, Rose Art Museum: There is something very bold and edgy about the works, drop-dead beautiful, also painful, but very tender.

Jared Bowen : Gannit Ankori is the museum's director and has been watching Toor's rise in the art world,especially since his first solo exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum in 2020.

Gannit AnkorI: He found a visual vocabulary that articulates the life of a queer brown man living between his homeland and diaspora and creating a community and visualizing that community on his own terms.

Jared Bowen : One that mostly unfolds a world away from Pakistan, where homosexuality is punished by law, but where Toor found safety and camaraderie among queer friends in his high school art room.

Salman Toor: We were all queer. We were all out to each other. And in an environment that was pretty harsh otherwise, I think that we were able to create a very magical space.

Jared Bowen : That magic dances through his paintings featuring close-knit friends at bars, in cars, and hanging at home, their joy swelling in a series he has titled Fag Puddles reappropriating a hate-filled word into something:

Salman Toor: Like a fabulous heap of, like, exhaustion. And to me, it's fun to kind of fill it, that hate with objects that are fun to paint for me. I am thinking about like a feather boa or laundry, anything that's really fun, like a disco ball or something.

Jared Bowen : Hate and danger creep into Toor's work. It's a residue of the fear he felt as a queer man in Pakistan and a reflection of the anti-LGBTQ+ violence escalating here in the U.S.

But rendering it on the canvas, Toor says, is therapeutic.

Salman Toor: It's a way to seize control back and to be able to be the master of that narrative.

Jared Bowen : Which is why we also find a lot of comedic relief in his paintings, figures with Pinocchio-like noses, cartoonish hair and rubbery limbs.

Salman Toor: I do have a sense of humor as a person. I'm not -- I don't take myself that seriously. And I do take my work seriously.

So it's important to me that the works about any kind of pain or suffering doesn't get bogged down in any kind of one-dimensional pity or sanctimoniousness of any kind.

Jared Bowen : Pain is often drowned out in this show by love. If Toor's paintings are a novel, there is a meaningful chapter on family.

In this work titled The Women, we see a boy lingering around the warm, gossipy exchanges of his mother and aunts. Toor still owns it and won't let it go, he says, because it's too rooted in memory.

Salman Toor: It's someone kind of looking at themselves maybe in a deeper way in the mirror at that moment than they do usually. And it's a moment, I feel like, in which someone finds themselves beautiful in a mirror.

Jared Bowen : It's also a portrait of the artist as a young man on the verge of launching into a world all his own.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Waltham, Massachusetts.

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