Is truck art Islamic?

It seems that the more conservative strains of Islam could take issue with truck art. After all, there are abundant depictions of animals and occasionally humans. This could provoke objections for two reasons. First, the truck art might represent forms that do not fit with Islamic norms such as unveiled women. Second, the pictures themselves are similar to idols and an affront to Islam’s staunch monotheism.

When I first saw truck art in Pakistan, it was striking that just to west, across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban defaced not just depictions of women, but any art depicting natural forms, including animals. In the most remarkable instances, Taliban obscured the animals on traffic signs. The underlying concern is still evident today in Peshawar, a hotbed of truck art, where billboards using female models are sometimes defaced. Asking truck artists about the contrast between the social norms and the content of their art, I’ve been told that some truck drivers with fully jingled vehicles are, themselves, Taliban or Taliban-sympathizers.

Some motifs in truck art are wholly Islamic. Many of the panels in truck art murals depict the Kabaa, which probably balance any concerns over the other panels of animals and other figures. At least one Islamic-oriented website shares my appreciation of truck art.

A Nawaz Sharif mural on a truck in Punjab

In the end, its probably a matter of taste and values of the viewer. Yet its clear that truck art does not shy away from controversy. The political representations in truck art, which appear frequently, may be more objectionable than the images that challenge religious mores. This truck, which prominently features the polarizing leader Nawaz Sharif, would probably be abhorred in parts of the Sindh heartland, where he has beenburned in effigy.

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Lok Virsa’s Truck Art Display

Lok Virsa, the Pakistani Cultural Heritage Museum in Islamabad, has been aggresively publicizing their new truck art exhibit. Lok Virsa has ample room for a large truck art display. The museum itself is impressive for its size and its exhaustive collection of anything related to Pakistani culture. It takes well more than an hour to casually walk through the dozens of halls. Yet the area dedicated to truck art is just one glass-encased part of a room. Despite its billing, the installation is a bit underwhelming.

The publicity leads the visitor to expect a substantial display with multiple types of truck art or some insight into the history.

The truck art display centers around a “truck stop”, or tea house. Viewers see the mounted front of a truck with full embellishment, next to the carriage of a truck with a colorful mural. In front of both truck sections are some uninspired mannequins dressed in shalwar khameez sitting and drinking tea. A sign says that this is supposed to represent a Pakistani truck stop, but it doesn’t compare to a visit one of the real teastops or workshops just fifteen minutes away from the museum.

Like much of the museum, there is minimal signage or instructions that provide context to the display. To the true truck art aficionado it may be worth a visit as it is the only museum in Islamabad with truck art. The museum itself is more of an attraction, with its seemingly never ending series of displays. But the lackluster truck art presentation does not begin to capture its visual intensity and cultural relevance.

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