The BBC has aired one of the more entertaining pieces of television coverage on truck art in its “Close Up” segment. Host Aleem Maqbool first visits the truck repair shops at Pir Wadhai, then the tribal truck art galleries, and finishes with a gift from one of the “famous” truck artists.
Click to play the segment
The artist featured at the end of the segment who prepares Maqbool’s portrait, deserves recognition. Though he may have the name wrong; Maqbool introduces him as Habib ur-Rehman, but his business card reads Al-Habib Ejaz. Regardless, not only is he the painter behind the Foxy Shehzad and responsible for many of the works in the Tribal Truck Art collection, he is possibly the first truck artist to have a Facebook page, albeit an underdeveloped one.
Appropriately, the segment even finds a rear “Love” painting to emphasize the origins of the art. Given that there is only so much explanation that can be included in a five-minute piece, this is a great way to capture the motivation behind vehicular artists.
Spending more time at the Pir Wadhai shops, Maqbool focuses on painted truck art. At about the 2:47 mark, he gives a nod to decoration pieces, pointing to an excellent peacock. The passing mention overlooks that the decoration piece can serve as a centerpiece and the most captivating, attention-generating part of the truck.
I have highlighted the Volkswagen Beetle at 3:00 elsewhere in the blog. The reporter would have done well to mention that cars decorated in the tradition of truck art are atypical for Pakistan. A painted car is about as unusual as an unpainted truck.
A painter mentions preparing a picture of Osama bin Laden at his customer’s request. I have never seen his likeness in truck art before. It might be more provocative than other visages of political figures, but is certainly well within the range of truck art.
The Pulitzer Center has a memorable feature filmed in and around truck workshops of Karachi. The coverage focuses on the workshop of Jamal “Lucky” Uddin, while other interviews highlights the importance of truck art to the average Pakistani. The challenges to the future of truck art, which are often overlooked in these brief segments, is noteworthy.
As the largest city in Pakistan and potentially the largest transportation hub, Karachi can make compelling claims as the center of truck art. There probably is not an accurate measurement of the “center” of truck art, but the craftsmen in Rawalpindi dispute the claim made by some of their Karachi peers. Curiously, the video closes with a few frames about the Karakorum Highway, but the connection is not clear. If the Karakorum highway is important to the development of truck art, Peshawar, not distant Karachi, deserves the claim of truck art capital.
The suggestion is that there are two trends that suggest a bleak trend for the future of truck art. The first is the global economic downturn, which leaves truck owners with left money to spend on decoration. The second, and more significant, is the growing use of shipping containers. While there are some colorful flatbed trucks, the absence of side panels significantly limit the decoration spaces. Still, as long as Pakistanis share the attitude of the guard who “loves” truck art (1:45), it is likely that truck art will remain for some time.
Take note of the excellent decoration pieces at 3:48 and 5:01.
Common truck art imagery on the right side of the car includes the baraq above the rear tire.
Similar to the Foxy Shehzad, the car that travelled from Islamabad to Paris, another Volkswagen decorated in the truck art style is planning an overland trip to Europe. This one is launched by an enterprising German who has worked for the past year on energy issues in Islamabad and is planning on driving it back. What a great way to return home.
In February, the owner was waiting for an Iranian visa, without which the trip would be nearly impossible. (What other routes are there? The trip into China, and then Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is a bit circuitous). Last I heard he had left and was nearly in Turkey. By starting in the Spring, he avoids many of the problems with mountain passes the made the Foxy Shehzad’s trip so difficult.
Decorated with some traditional truck art imagery, the car also has some more unique motifs. Birds are certainly some of the most common representational forms, which appear in multiple locations. There is a well painted Buraq, the prophet’s horse, depicted as it typically appears in truck art. There are some jungle animals, including elephants and giraffes, which are less common. Rather than portraying any individual Pakistani leaders, the artwork depicts noteworthy Pakistani sites, such as the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, where the Pakistani state was officially declared, and the iconic Khyber Gate.
She doesn’t need the flashy truck art jacket to attract attention, but it helps
Truck art seems like a natural inspiration for fashion designers. It is flashy, colorful and eye-catching. In excess, the elements could be garish or overstimulating, but these risks do not seem foreign to modern designers. At least one artist has drawn from this wellspring of style. Deepak Perwani recently launched an elegant collection that borrows many aspects of truck art. The garments are lively and colorful, but not excessively so. The article does not describe what materials he uses in the outfits, but the color scheme is similar. Studs and mirrors, staples of truck art decoration pieces, could also transfer to the garments.
This is probably more difficult to extend to a men’s clothing line, which could result in something akin to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. His male garments are limited to shalwar khameezes that are more restrained yet still innovative. I doubt men’s clothing blends with truck art as well.
The Foxy Shehzad, a decorated Volkswagen bug, has successfully traveled from Islamabad to Paris. The blog chronicles the trip, which was initiated by a Pakistani trio including two doctors and an IT specialist. From their account, it looks like the mountains in Turkey near the border with Iran were the biggest obstacle to the small vehicle. Like most displays of truck art outside of Pakistan, the initiative is an excellent form of cultural diplomacy and displays a side of Pakistan that is unfamiliar to most. Their corporate sponsors should be satisfied as the effort seems to have generated abundant media attention. The car itself is beautiful and the Rawalpindi artists seem to have done their best work. There’s a nice tribute to Benazir on the left door of the car and Jinnah on the front.
The Foxy Shehzad in Islamabad
The car raises one of the questions that I’ve had about decorated vehicles since it first piqued my interest. In a country where jingle trucks are the norm, why aren’t there more cars with ornamentation? Truck art is, as the name would suggest, found mostly on trucks or, occasionally, other large vehicles such as shared taxis, buses, or tractors. Yet I’ve never seen a jingle car before the Foxy Shehzad. I thought about putting some colorful, jingled hubcaps on my car, but this would be far outside the norm.
What accounts for the paucity of jingled cars? A first explanation would be that a family car is considered a finished product, bought from a showroom complete without the need for any blandishments. But at the same time, when the cost of car improvements is so low and many Pakistanis accessorize their vehicles, with flashy stereo systems and wheels, it really doesn’t make sense that there are not more jingle cars. Perhaps the more accurate explanation is that a culture has developed around jingling trucks, which has not extended to smaller vehicles. Alternatively, there’s also less of commercial impulse with vehicles used for personal use. However, much of truck art is not advertising related.
Arwa Damon is fascinated by truck art. A focus of her report is some Rawalpindi craftsmen that work in chamak patty, or reflective tape, which is the central element for decoration pieces. In addition to adorning the shaped metalwork to make decoration pieces, chamak patty is also fashioned into the strips that she highlights.
To avoid any mention of decoration pieces, the most eye-catching part of the vehicle, is a major oversight. In addition to the embroidery strips, the workshop also prepares decoration pieces. The metal foundation for a decoration piece in its early stage of construction is visible at 1:51.
Damon is understandably impressed by the deft cutting that workers apply when cutting and placing chamak patty. Delving further into the medium, she could point out that the highest quality, and most expensive tape is Avery, while the Chinese imported tape is the cheapest and most abundant.
Curiously, she reports that it costs 55,000 rupees (about $650) to fully decorate a truck. This number seems significantly lower than what other media have recorded elsewhere and what I’ve been quoted. Given how rare unveiled blond women are in these places, the workshop probably really wanted her business.
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.
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.