Al Jazeera on the “dark side” of truck and bus art

A new article and video from Al Jazeera features a retired bus artist from Faisalabad. The video has some great shots of decorated trucks and buses, but the coverage of the working conditions borders on sensationalism. The story dramatizes the working conditions of artists at the expense of more important points.

The article and video centers around Rafiq, a 69 year old bus artist who has devoted his life to the craft. Now retired, he faces daily boredom and relies on a respirator. He was unable to pay for his children’s education and now lives a meager existence.

To emphasize the “dark side” of truck and bus art, positive developments are downplayed. It is a travesty that Rafiq is disabled now, but working conditions for truck artists have improved. Painting is not as common as it used to be in the bus decoration, often replaced by cut reflective tape or readymade stickers. Even for painters that are working today, the paints used are rarely toxic and protective equipment is more readily available. As the video points out, some of the paint now mechanically applied, not hand painted, saving painters time and increasing the number of vehicles that can be painted.

We learn that he has a respiratory condition and that he could not afford education for his children, but his wages are better than they once were. He recalls that the days when he was first working as a truck artist as an unpaid apprentice and is glad those he are behind him. The dark side of truck art is slightly brighter and is much better than the work that burdens many Pakistanis who do not have a formal education. (Of course, the working conditions of truck artists are far worse than most any other artist, but that is a topic for another post).

The real dark side to truck art is the dark side of living in abject poverty. Rafiq suffers because there are limited social services in Pakistan, especially in the poorer parts of the country like Faisalabad. Rafiq’s cataracts aren’t due to his profession, they’re due to Pakistan’s failing health care system. The problem of child labor in truck art is significant, but it is indicative of the problem of school fees and poor education quality, not the art itself.

There’s a lot more that Al Jazeera could have covered if they weren’t focused on the “dark side”.  Profiles of truck artists are fascinating and the coverage here doesn’t go as far as it could. What are  Rafiq’s children doing now? Many truck artists continue the craft that they’ve inherited from their parents, was this not the case for Rafiq’s children? Did Rafiq work with the same team for the entirety of his career? How did his clientele change over time? What motifs are common now and what was popular when he was working? Truck art is different from bus art as there is more of an incentive for owners to decorate their vehicles as a better decorated bus can attract more riders. Does Rafiq see a difference between truck art and bus art?

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Pakistani truck art bus benches in Washington DC

An otherwise non-descript street in a residential Northeast DC neighborhood, has been livened by the installation of two new benches.  Thanks to a grant by the Awesome Foundation and painter Haider Ali, the bright benches are a welcoming contrast with the greys, whites, and browns of the street, houses, and bricks found on Michigan Avenue NE. The benches themselves are comfortable and much different than the government-installed bus benches that are sit feet away. Those benches, barely large enough to allow riders to rest more than a few inches of their body, are possibly an example of deliberately inconvenient public design to discourage extended use. The Pakistani truck art-styled benches have ample space for two people to comfortably sit and enjoy Haider’s colors and details.

Each bench has its own character and set of colors, yet both have traditional truck art motifs, adapted slightly for the US. One bench has the Pakistani and American flags, along with a majestic peacock that covers the length of the bench. The other bench is centered around an eagle, another common motif, and topped by women’s eyes. Unlike the rest of the work which is painted with acrylics, the eyes are printed stickers.

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Just how popular is Justin Trudeau in truck art?

The picture of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone viral multiple times. But it’s unlikely that is ever appeared on a truck, in Pakistan or elsewhere.

Portraits of politicians, generals, and sports stars are not unusual on Pakistani trucks. They’re almost always found on the rear of the vehicle, where there’s the most space available and usually less religious imagery. Its not common, but not unheard of, to see non-Pakistanis featured. During the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was a popular subject, as was Princess Diana following her death.

Trudeau is good looking, young, and soft-spoken. In many respects, he’s the opposite of Trump. Although there’s a large Pakistani population in Canada and Trudeau has made efforts at outreach, he’s far from the most prominent world leader. That he’s not the most likely person to be featured on a Pakistani truck makes the painting all the more noteworthy. This picture has gone viral and replicated thousands of times, but there’s no evidence that it ever appeared on a truck. I’ve been told that it was commissioned specifically to hang as a picture, not on a vehicle.

While its a beautiful piece, the picture of Trudeau never appeared on a truck. It was first posted by a Twitter user @jawadhq13 on January 28, 2016. It was widely circulated, even making its way to a Pakistan Day reception hosted by the High Commission in Canada in March of that year. About a year later, it suddenly generated more attention, including coverage by French media, several Pakistani  outlets that apparently missed it in 2016, and even Russia Today. All media used the same image in their reporting.

Hopefully Trudeau in truck art will spark media attention again, with another image, on an actual truck.

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2013 Roundup: Truck art initiatives

This post covers the spread of truck art from Pakistan in its traditional medium to other forms around the world, through new art and endeavors, over 2013.

The redesign of a vintage American truck in Pakistani style by Kansas City-based artist Asheer Akram’s Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative was completed and displayed. The final product is tasteful in re-purposing traditional American symbols, such as buffaloes, in the context of truck art.

Asheer Ahmed’s 1950’s grain truck done in the style of Pakistani truck art

The efforts by photographer Peter Grant, {UPDATE LINK HERE}discussed earlier on the site, to decorate a truck in New Zealand and show his work reached fruition with the completed decoration of the vehicle he named Artie. The artist he brought from Pakistan, Younus Nawaz, decorated other vehicles during his visit (pdf).

Pakistani youth from FATA were given cameras to photograph their lives. The result was exhibited at an event in Washington, DC and several of the stunning photos featured truck art.

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2013 Roundup: Truck art in advertising

Much has happened in the world of Pakistani truck art in 2013 – many exhibitions, new initiatives, truck art-inspired art, and news coverage. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a summary of developments around different themes. Today, I’m covering truck art in advertising.

Truck art has occasionally been used by companies for its eye-catching, colorful appeal and this trend continued last year.

Truck art was the inspiration for the branding of Expo 2013 in Karachi

A video by the mobile company 02 features art from each of the countries where it offers service and uses truck art motifs for their Pakistan segment, which included the contributions from several Pakistani artists.

At Expo Pakistan, the largest trade fair held in Pakistan, the truck art-inspired logo was prominent on “posters, notebooks, goodie-bags and even in the fashion show”.

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Who Was the First Truck Artist?

A few different authors have tried to identify a single person as first artist in Pakistan. Though there is little historical to answer this question, that has not been an obstacle to enterprising commentators.

Perhaps it was a Karachi-based painter named Ustad Elahi Baksh:

The art originated in the days of the Raj, when craftsmen decorated horse-drawn carriages for the aristocracy. Rana, citing historian Peter Grant, said the Kohistan Bus Company hired craftsman Ustad Elahi Bakhsh and his group to decorate their buses to attract passengers in the 1920s.

From Central Asia Online, December 12, 2011

This account, however, has limited credibility, not least of all because Peter Grant is not a historian, but a New Zealand-based artist and photographer.

Another theory also places the origin in Karachi but attributes the start to Haji Hussain:

Trucks, introduced in Karachi in the 1930s were initially simply painted with a protective coat of one colour with the name of the truck company stenciled in a single colour. After partition, in the 1950s trade and port activities increased in the city and the economic prosperity of the 1950s ushered in a demand for transportation of goods. Gradually the embellishment on trucks became elaborate, evolving into a popular art form, referred to as truck art. One of the claimants to the beginning s of truck decoration was Haji Hussain who came from a long line of kamaaangars (bow and arrow makers) turned court painters in Kutch, Gujarat. At partition he brought his skills in painting murals, decorative ceilings, and statuary to Karachi and added to the stenciled trucks images of birds, flower vases, a telephone with a woman’s hand picking up the receiver on which the company’s telephone number would be written.. His sons, grandsons, and former apprentices have carried on the tradition of [chitarkari] the art of making pictures, painting trucks, sign writing or decorating furniture and decorative light panels all over Pakistan.

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Bringing Truck Art to New Zealand

For those interested in recent pictures of trucks and other vehicles in Paksitan, the website of New Zealand photographer and filmmaker Peter Grant is worth visiting, though recent posts appear to have veered away from truck art. His visit was part of a larger effort he has undertaken, called Painting Pakistan Proud, that will display some truck art-related objects in two galleries on the island and feature a real “truck artist”, Similar to the US-based Pakistan Cargo Truck Initiative, Grant’s project will also decorate an old campervan.
During his time in Pakistan, Grant met with Durriya Kazi, a Karachi-based, English-speaking artist who participated in “the first credible attempt to treat automotive decoration” as an art form. Unfortunately, Grant shares little on what he learned from her. Hopefully, this will appear in his film as well as more about what he was told in the conversations with truck drivers and artists he mentions.
Grant’s pictures, taken mostly in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, do a great job of capturing the beauty of Pakistani trucks and buses but his prose does not receive the same attention.
In particular, I was struck by his comment that “The trucks are male, the buses female…. (Hoping that its alright to recreate the screenshot here, I’m not sure how sensitive Grant is to copyright issues.) Of course, feminity is somewhat subjective, but this differs significantly from my understanding of trucks in Pakistan and how Jamal Elias describes them in On Wings of Diesel: “While trucks frequently carry masculine symbols, such as weaponry or other forms”. They are invariably viewed as feminine. The word ‘truck’ is masculine in Punjabi, Pashto, and Urdu, but formal gender notwithstanding, trucks are notionally assigned feminine gender, even if they carry masculine-sounding names”. (126) Indeed, trucks are cared for, bejeweled and adorned the way that brides are.

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Truck Art on Istanbul Bus Commemorates Pakistan – Turkey Ties

Last May, the Istanbul public transit authority unveiled a municipal bus decorated by a Pakistani artist. The event was widely covered in Turkish print and broadcast media and included speeches by local municipal officials and the Pakistan Consulate General. The Turkish onlookers seem genuinely impressed by their unusual bus.

Overall, the design of the truck includes some aspects common to truck art in Pakistan but its a departure in several key respects. Some of the motifs, such as the chukar partridge and the peacock are frequently represented on trucks in Pakistan, as are some of the locations depicted, such as the Faisal Mosque and Minar-e-Pakistan. These Pakistani sites sit alongside a painting of the Blue Mosque, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Istanbul.

The most significant departure of the bus from decorated vehicles in Pakistan is that there is no Islamic imagery, apart from mosques, which do not take on much religious significance. On decorated trucks in Pakistan, a depiction of the Kaaba or the Prophet’s mosque is the norm. The rear of the vehicle, which is typically a place for jokes or aphorisms, is dedicated to Pakistan-Turkey friendship.

Interestingly, much of the Turkish media covering the announcement have described the truck art as a “The Art of Karachi” (`Karaçi Sanatı`). Yet the artist, Haider Ali, hails from Lahore. As [UPDATE LINK HERE]I’ve discussed elsewhere, other cities can also make strong claims as the center of truck art in Pakistan.

According to the Consulate General in Istanbul, the bus was expected to be on the road for three months. I wonder what happened after that time? Recent forum posts suggest it may still be on the road.

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Spread the Excitement: Truck and Bus Art to Promote the 2012 Olympics

A recent art project by students of the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi has generated significant media coverage. To “spread the excitement” of the 2012 London Olympics, the art students painted a Hino truck. I suppose it was successful in increasing awareness. Before reading about this effort, I had not heard of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a celebration of national traditions that complements the sporting contests.

This is a departure from traditional truck art decoration, with a much different intent. For the students, the aim was to increase awareness, or promote, London 2012. Though some buses may attract more passengers with better decoration, there is no overt advertising motive in traditional truck art.

The students also took remarkable liberties with the motifs on the bus. This has to be the first “truck art” vehicle to include a picture of lips and “Lolz”. Perhaps this is the student’s vernacular, as pithy sayings are for truckers. Despite the motifs that break with tradition, other aspects of style, like color, are consistent with tradition. With the new decorations, the vehicle looks more garish yet less visually stunning than most on the road. This could be because the bus lacks the taj, or headpiece above the windowshield, which is one of the most impressive parts of decorated trucks.

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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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