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Truck art makes for moving canvasses on highways

 IPS 18 October 2019

For Karachi-based event manager Shabnam Abdullah, it is a "primary representation of Pakistan". Quite enamoured with the unique art form, Abdullah has even used it for a few workshops she arranged for her corporate clients (944 Words) - By Zofeen Ebrahim


IPS_Truck art makes for moving canvasses on highways

 Islam Gul, the runaway kid from Peshawar, is one of the most sought-after truck artists in Karachi. He takes about two days to finish one mural. Photo: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

"It was a good icebreaker as the amusing poetry and surreal imagery immediately aroused interactivity," she says. Abdullah has also used it as a theme for her daughter's wedding.

'It' is truck art, or the explosion of colours and gewgaws that is characteristic of Pakistan's behemoths on the road. Often called 'art on wheels', these heavily decorated trucks, which offer a kaleidoscope of images as they cross provinces to deliver all sort of goods, never fail to bring a smile to the face of anyone who sees them.

These days, truck art has become so much a part of Pakistani pop culture that even the respected British literary magazine 'Granta' has it on the cover of Issue 112, which has Pakistan as its subject.

In fact, Pakistani truck art is no longer confined to vehicles and highways, but has made inroads as well into the world of fashion and home furnishings.

Even Maheen Khan, one of Pakistan's most senior couturiers, was inspired by truck art when in 2004 she opened Gulabo, which she describes as a "high- street clothing/T-shirt brand" shop.

"It comes straight from the heart," says the 65-year old designer of what she calls "raw Pakistani street art". Professing a love for the "bits of homegrown impromptu poetry" that are part of many a truck design, Khan says she was moved to start a brand that signified the "humour and the artistry" depicted on the trucks.

There have also been the likes of Anjum Rana, who says she has spent the last eight years promoting truck art here and abroad by "transposing" it onto "garden furniture, teapots, trays, coal-irons, tables, chairs, watering cans, jugs, glasses and at least 30 other items".

It is not hard to see what can fire up such enthusiasm. Indeed, even mere visitors to this southern port city - the capital of Pakistani truck art - cannot escape seeing the massive, gaudy vehicles that have captured the imagination of many people, Pakistanis and foreigners alike.

From front fender up to the back, Pakistani transport trucks sport not only murals of anything from mythical creatures at play to F-16s battling it out in the skies, but also ornate woodwork and metalwork. Witty sayings or some lines of poetry, which noted artist and former academic Salima Hashmi says "entertain and protect the drivers", are also a must for many trucks.

Finishing it all off are lighting and sound effects that do not necessarily match the overall design. Then again, there is also the interiors of the cab, which usually boast of intricate beadwork and embroidery on the seats and on window fringes -- and perhaps even a plastic chandelier topping the merry mayhem.

The effect may be garish to some, but art historian Niilofer Farrukh calls it "naïve art" that is an amalgamation of popular expressions.

Some scholars trace the roots of truck art all the way back to the camel caravans that had the beasts of burden festooned with embroidered gear. After that came horse-drawn carriages that had as much adornment and colour. But there are truck art aficionados who say it really all started during the 1920s with a bus company that wanted to make itself distinct from the rest.

Hashmi herself will only say that truck art "has been around for decades now".

But she says with more certainty that contemporary artists began "engaging with it (only) in the early '90s".

"The 'discovery' and study of this genre of popular art led to collaborative projects such as the Container Project and Heart Mahal," says Hashmi. "Truck artists went to Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, in Japan. Some went to Melbourne for the last Commonwealth Games and painted a tram, which is still being used."

But some truck artists like Islam Gul, who did the cover for 'Granta', are not too happy with what Gul says is tantamount to exploitation by "people who earn by selling our art abroad but haggle with us and pay us pittance".

"That's because we don't come from the same social standing and do not know how to promote ourselves," rues 24-year-old Phool Badshah.

Usually, truck artists like him and Gul put their names and cell phone numbers on the trucks they paint to get more business. According to Badshah, however, there are people who "engage us but do not let us use our names on the work".

In truth, many artisans who contribute to designing the trucks remain anonymous for the rest of their lives. Unlike the painters like Gul and Badshah who eventually gain fame and even get invited to international events, the woodcarvers of the doors and panels, the metalworkers, and reflective tape and embroidery experts tend to be overlooked by even those who rave about the trucks.

So far, though, no one among them seems to be complaining. Yet for all its success, the industry that is truck art was not able to escape the impact of the recent floods in Pakistan.

Badshah says business has been slow recently. "Because of the floods, the trucks are constantly on the move," he says. "They are continuously transporting goods from Karachi to Peshawar and beyond and cannot be spared."

Originally published by Inter Press Service. ©


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