Has Ghulam Sarwar Made Washington, DC the US Capital of Truck Art?

In October 2011, Ghulam Sarwar, an artist who hails from Peshawar but works mostly in Karachi, visited Bethesda, Maryland, in the suburbs of the Washington DC. He practiced his craft on several US vehicles (the exact number is not mentioned in any of the articles), homes, and buildings, including the door of Honest Tea, a local beverage producer. Though he notes in this interview that the motivation among his American clients is different than Pakistani truckers, he does not seem to mind. This article, which also has the best collection of pictures, describes the enthusiastic reception among Americans.

For a typical assignment, such painting the KIA Soul in the picture, he receives $1,500-2,000 and takes between 7 to 10 days. He also painted a Volkswagen Bug on Capitol Hill for $1400. This is not the first painted bug from Pakistan; [UPDATE LINK HERE]others have been mentioned on this site. Though few vehicles of those vehicles have seen a US audience. All the American owners interviewed raved about Sarwar’s work and the response the vehicles generate.

This is most recent of several visits to the US by Sarwar. In 2009 the artist participated in a Sante Fe exposition of craftsmen from the developing world and received an Award from UNESCO for his contribution.

Sarwar has previously expanded his artistry beyond trucks. He has partnered with Tribal Truck Art to decorate homewares with a truck art motifs. It was the founder of Tribal Truck Art, Anjum Rana, who helped Sarwar gain exposure at the Sante Fe Festival.

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New York Times on Truck Art: fascinating quality and surrealistic detail

I’m resuming blogging after an extended hiatus by commenting on an article that was published earlier this month in the US paper of record, the New York Times. For several reasons, I think this is the best coverage I’ve ever read about truck art in a popular publication.

First, the author consults the major names in the truck art world, Durriya Kazi and Jamal Elias. Of these two, Elias has published more on the topic and in several scholarly journals. I’ve learned alot from reading him and its great to see him referenced. Any author is just scratching the surface without his insight.

Second, the article addresses one of the questions I’ve long had about truck art: what is the economic benefit from decorating a vehicle? With buses, the motive is clear. A better decorated bus will attract more passengers and make more money. But there is not an obvious incentive to decorate a truck, because most trucks are hired through middlemen, sight unseen. A better decorated truck will not bring in any more business. But, as the article points out, more decorations will make the truck more desirable for drivers, who can choose between vehicles. So with more decoration, truck owners get better truck drivers.

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India – Pakistan Relations and the Future of Trucking: A Strange Feeling

The Washington Post has an article worth reading about the challenges and future of cross-border trade. Both countries are interested in expansion but are hampered by bureaucratic red tape. Though there are clear sings of progress; now, trucks are allowed to cross the border, which was only made possible in 2007. The existence of restricted Visas which only allow access to certain cities was news to me.

This article only makes a passing reference to truck art, when mentioning the “vibrantly painted” vehicle owned by a Pakistani transporting dates. The print version has some great pictures of fully decorated trucks preparing to cross the border. It is unfortunate the Post did not choose those for their online version.

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Vehicle Decorations and Their Drivers: Why Decorate?

The decorated cars featured in this blog are a novelty in Pakistan. In a country with per capita GDP of $1100 and just 8 cars per 1000 people, owning a vehicle is a privilege reserved for the elite. Car ownership is a widely held aspiration, a sign of wealth, and a demonstration of status.

Decorated trucks, on the other hand, connote something much different. According to many truck art scholars, the eclectic and colorful expressions found on truck art are an outward reflection of the trucker’s lifestyle. Alain Lefebvre makes this point in “The Decorative Truck as a Communicative DeviceSemiotica 75, no. 3-4 (1989). Page 218

The driver is aware of the reputation as a modern adventurer he has among the men-in-the-street.

Through his behavior and manners he tries to express masculinity, courage, and toughness in such a way that the others’; fear and respect are strengthened. He drives fast and carelessly, the road is his own; he smokes hashish (both to enhance his reputation and because it is an aid in surviving the tempo of work); he likes erotic love songs; he has sexual relationships with his young assistant; he smuggles goods; he shows off by recalling how he is constantly confronted with dangers on the road. In other words, these characteristics are complementary to the power of expression of the truck itself.

The difference between truck and car decoration could support this explanation. The car-owning middle and upper class Pakistanis share none the characteristics Lefebvre associates with Pakistani truck drivers. Instead, their life runs a pattern similar to their Western counterparts, working an eight-hour day and driving a normal vehicle appropriate for the routine of that lifestyle. In the eyes of many from this background, truck art is considered garish, sophomoric, and unsophisticated, and staid, unembellished vehicles are more appropriate.

Other scholarship on truck art echoes Lefebvre’s characterization. George W. Rich and Shahid Khan make a very similar point about the trucker’s lifestyle. (“Bedford Painting in Pakistan: The Aesthetics and Organization of an Artisan TradeThe Journal of American Folklore, 93, no. 369 (1980))

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Richard Holbrooke has a “keen interest” in truck art

On Thursday, June 24, The US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke visited Lok Virsa, the only museum in the country with a display dedicated to truck art. According to all accounts, he took a special interest in the truck art portion of the massive museum. He called the truck art display “art on wheels”, which could be a reference to the book with the same name. Members of his staff delegation entered the cab of the aging truck that sits outside the museum.

I’ve commented before that the truck art exhibit at Lok Virsa does not do justice to the art. Centered around a diorama of a truck tea shop and a side of the vehicle, it is really more of an obligatory nod to the art and not a serious treatment. In fairness, I suppose its marginally better than many of the other museums in Islamabad, many of which are in more desperate need of repairs and support.

In the more than 18 months that Holbrooke has been in office, he has done an excellent job of maintaining the status quo. Truck art is threatened but it would be best if this wonderful art continued for years. Let’s hope that Holbrooke has the same effect on the present state of vehicular decorations that he has on other issues.

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Indian Trucks: Gender Differences, Guideline Similarities

Indian Homemaker has assembled an excellent photo collection of Indian trucks. I’ve commented [UPDATE THIS LINK]before on the similarities and differences between Indian and Pakistani trucks, but her pictures, translations, and brief comments are actually more informative than the broadcast coverage of Indian trucks.

There are several points that struck me as I looked through the pictures. First, Indian truckers seem much more concerned about safety than their counterparts. The rear of every truck has safety-related instructions. From these pictures “Blow Horn”, looks the most widely used, but other accounts find “Horn OK” as more frequent. “Use Dipper at Night” asks drivers to switch from a high beam to a low beam (or is it just saying, turn on your lights!). For the Indian trucks, this guidance is much more prominent than any pictures, poetry, or quips, which are the most visible fixtures on the rear of Pakistani trucks. Although not featured in any of Indian Homemaker’s collection, some Indian trucks do have murals on the rear, which look quite similar to Pakistani paintings.

In marked contrast to Pakistani trucks, which have a uniformly feminine appearance, Indian trucks vary in sex and age.

“Don’t miss ‘Chamiya’ ( a flashily dressed woman?) on the middle flap This truck is female Many trucks are also referred to as sons (beta), daughters (beti), tigresses (shernee) and ladla (a male brat) or laadli (female brat)”

Though it is noteworthy no trucks are called adult men, Indian trucks can be masculine. I’ve never heard a Pakistani vehicle given a male name.

The religious imagery on trucks are not specific to any faith. Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck and are distinctly Islamic. Religious decorations on trucks are much more universal, such as “God is One” and “God is Universal.” With such a range of Hindu deities to choose from, the absence of religious imagery may be a move to avoid sectarian strife. There probably is no advantage to having a truck that is easily identified as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh as it limits access to certain areas, which is not a concern in Pakistan. (Though apparently Indian Homemaker’s selection is not a representative sample, and Hindu gods are painted on trucks, as this picture shows).

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Trucker Profile: Ateequr Rehman and his 1988 Bedford (part one)

I met 21-year old Ateequr Rehman near southern Islamabad, where he was waiting for orders. Sometimes, the truck owner will give him instructions, but often he works through an agent, or booker, who collects shipping requests. The booker is located in the same truck depot and when I chatted with him, Ateequr was on a break until he received his next instructions from the booker.

He has been working as a trucker for the past six years, starting as a trucker’s assistant. He frequently plies the Karakorum Highway to Gilgit, or Skardu, which is a 3-4 day trip. Most recently, he’s been traveling to Sost, the Pakistan-China border town, which recently reopened for trade. Originally from Abbotabad, Ateequr will sometimes stay a day or two there on the trip.

He receives a fixed amount for the trip to Gilgit. The funds are expected to cover all expenses, including petrol and fines, which are a common occurrence. His last fine was for driving through Islamabad before 11 pm, when trucks are prohibited, which cost him 300 rupees. Most frequently he is fined for carrying overloaded goods.

His monthly salary is 8000 rupees, though he can sometimes make more from the funds that are unspent on fuel and fines. While there are rest stops which offer cots, he usually sleeps in the cab of the truck, or on top of truck, in the taj, or decorated headpiece.

His 1988 Bedford Rocket was last repainted in 2005, and different shops were used for repainting and repair. The truck owner, who has a four-vehicle fleet, paid for the decorations. He expects that the doors and the artwork will be repaired in 2 or 3 years. The truck does not have any decoration pieces, but he finds them beautiful and likes to see them on trucks.

Prominent on corners of the truck are several black cloths, or romal, which protect against the evil eye. Ateequr says he doesn’t believe in the evil eye, but he was pleased to tie new, clean romal in the front.

All five of Ateequr’s brothers are truck drivers. When will he stop driving? When he looses the strength in his legs, he says.

Part two will describe the different motifs and elements in the truck’s design.

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NPR on Truck Art: The Contrast between the Color and the Conditions

In one of the better stories on truck art, NPR’s coverage focuses on a workshop near Islamabad, off the GT Road, which could be many different locations. The article captures the conditions of the workshops very well:

The conditions are almost medieval. The air is thick with diesel smoke; boys, men and sometimes whole families maneuver among smoking engines up on blocks, the sparks of welders and the hammering of metalworkers.

There’s also the pungent smell of hashish and battery fluids. All of this in stark contrast to the vibrant color of the art itself. The author does not mention decoration pieces, but these are found less frequently in workshops on the GT Road.

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Forever Young? Baez, Dylan and Truck Art

Art Slant has an article about the founder of Tribal Truck Art, Anjum Rana, and one of its Lahore-based painters, Ustaad Haider Ali. Interspersed with lines from Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, the article does its best to capture the inspiration and style of truck art. Tribal Truck Art has, quite effectively, replicated truck painting and put it on household items. Or, as the article puts it, “kitsch becomes high brow”. Kitsch is not the right word here, as truck decorations are only kitsch from the perspective of the high brow outsider. Folk art might be more appropriate.

Similarly, this quote is a bit of a mischaracterization:

Truck art in Pakistan and India represents desires, dreams, hopes, idols, serenity, food, color, protection, and freedom. The color and decoration signify a kind of escapism, from a reality that can otherwise be sharp at the edges, with few comforting spaces within. It represents stature: he who has the best truck will get the most business — amongst clients or ladies or otherwise.

Truckers do take great pride in the decorations of their vehicle, but this is not related to financial gain. This absence of any economic motive behind truck decorations is one of the most striking findings from the research of Jamal Elias and other truck art scholars. When hiring a truck for transporting goods in Pakistan, few companies ever see the vehicle beforehand. This is different for decorated buses, who have to compete among passengers.

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Fox News’ Scott Heidler on Truck Art

As his last report from Pakistan, Fox News correspondent Scott Heidler submits a story on truck art, which centers around a visit to a workshop near Rawalpindi. The piece is striking in how much Heidler uses the “jingle truck” to describe the art. I’ve awkward tour of Jinnah Market with a very confused Greta Van Susteren.

It bears mentioning that the interior of the truck is not just “pimped” in the same manner of the exterior. While a range of craftsmen will be involved in the exterior design and frame restoration, the decorations inside the cab are much different and usually reflect the personal styles and preferences of the driver.

It is striking that Heidler thinks truck art is “providing a diversion from the day to day realities of everyday life” yet at the same time, the significance is explained relative to US activities in the region, “hauling everything from scrap metal to NATO supplies on their way to Afghanistan”. In reality, the thriving truck art is remarkable in its own right. In that sense, the piece is typical of media coverage that is not security related. The richness of Pakistani life is not significant in its own right, but only noteworthy because it differs from the stream of stories about militants, drones, and instability.

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