2013 Roundup: Truck art exhibitions and displays

Around the world, truck art from Pakistan was celebrated and often combined with local cultural traditions.

In September, truck art was prominently featured at the Hindu festival Durga Puja in Calcutta. Though he traveled to India with the expectation that he would be painting a truck, artist Haider Ali painted one of the pandals, or structures used to carry the Gods, that are paraded during the festival. Truck art was selected as a theme for the Durga Puja because of its potential to build relations between the two nations. The music and film stars who are common subjects of truck murals, such as  Madhuri Dixit and Ataullah Khan, are an important common element . The Daily Mail has some pictures of the pandal while Haider Ali was painting.

In a similar message to the event in Calcutta, Haider Ali also painted a truck at the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan in August.

The same artist, Haider Ali, also was at the center of an Ottawa exhibition of truck art in October as well as events in Mississauga and Toronto, Canada earlier in the year that were well received. Haider Ali was also in Istanbul, where he painted a bus celebrating ties between Pakistan and Turkey.

A Glasgow exhibit featured truck art specifically from Punjab. Unfortunately, media coverage of the event does not include pictures, though it does mention that “In a prison in Glasgow, however, inmates have responded to truck art in a more basic way. “They found it macho and created truck art-inspired works of their own”.

Truck art was exhibited in Rome, Italy and in Japan. In April, truck art was again displayed at the Islamabad center of culture, Lok Virsa, featuring artist Habib ur Rehman and some of his pieces.

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, 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.

A French couple that has biked for eight years, covering more than 150,000 km to raise awareness for climate change appreciated truck art when they passed through Pakistan. Their bikes were embellished in the Rawalpindi truck workshops.

"Rickshaws for peace"

An advocacy organization, the Pakistan Youth Alliance, decorated auto-rickshaws, or three-wheeled vehicles, in a truck art style with peace messaging. Though the English messaging is unlikely to have much resonance with individuals responsible for instability in the region, it is a colorful gesture that was recognized by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman.

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”.

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.

From “The Semicotics of the Nation’s Icons by Naazish-Ullah” in Mazaar, Bazaar: Design & Visual Culture in Pakistan In this account, Haji Husain’s role in popularlizing the art receives even greater emphasis.

This account is provocative as it suggests that Pakistani truck art was born in what is present-day India, not Pakistan. Like the first article, it also does not have any real historical evidence to support the claim. Both accounts highlight Karachi, where the first trucks in Pakistan were imported, and it is likely here that truck art has its origins in Pakistan.

In reality, truck decoration “is an entirely modern constellation of occupations in which market forces are the major determinant of its development” and not attributable to an individual. The painter is only one important contributor the overall decoration of the truck and complemented by the ironworking, studs, mirrors, embroidery, and tape embellishments that make a fully decorated Pakistani truck. Although certain artists have gained prominence, some of whom have been highlighted on this blog, none of them or their predecessors can take credit as being the first.

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 notithstanding, 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.

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 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.

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.

None of the articles mention the inclusion of more experienced craftsman and artists. I am curious if any were involved and, if so, their reaction is to the work.

The British Ambassador seems pleased and based on the students interviewed in this video, they were satisfied with their work. Even better if they could use this foray into truck art as the first of many experimentations.

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; 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.

I see initiatives like Tribal Truck Art in a different light after finishing Professor Jamal Elias’ recently published book on Truck Art. The work as a whole is remarkable, essential reading on truck art, and deserves a much more thorough treatment than one blog post. In brief Elias views Tribal Truck Art, which are run by Pakistani elite, as exploiting the art and its lower class producers. Though Sarwar is now working for a different audience and clientele, it is not clear if he is disadvantaged by doing so. Or if this change serves to distort the art rather than preserve it. For Sarwar as an individual, he seems to have enjoyed the multiple trips to the US and the additional exposure.

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.

Third, the author visits some of the key truck art hubs in the country. Typically, journalists will visit the workshop in Rawalpindi, Lahore, or possibly Karachi. Parchman deserves a Pulitzer for visiting truck artists in both Lahore and Karachi. Still, he is modest in his conclusions. Some commentators have tried to draw spurious distinctions between the different forms of painting in each area. Parchman recognizes that it takes serious expertise: “Though the differences are not apparent to the untrained eye, drivers can tell what part of Pakistan a vehicle is from based on its decorations.”

If there is one part of the article with which I might take issue, its the final paragraphs. The contrasts between Pakistani truckers and their American counterparts are noteworthy, though this deserves a much more thorough analysis.

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.