From Khyber to Karachi, a kaleidoscope of rolling canvases convey everything from fantasy and landscapes to local issues and messages of cross-border peace on the workhorses of the Pakistani haulage industry — its giant trucks.
Elaborate, colourful designs, floral patterns, poetic calligraphy, portraits of heroes and actors, mirrors and jingling tassels are skilfully combined on the trucks, giving the vehicles their common English moniker: jingle trucks.
This simple love of man for his machine stands out, and there’s nothing low-key about it.
In recent years, the vibrantly ornate aesthetic of truck art has transcended borders and travelled far and wide, becoming one of Pakistan’s most distinctive cultural exports. It is now no longer seen only on the country’s roads — Karachi-based artist Haider Ali’s designs on vans and trucks form part of a permanent exhibit at Scotland’s Museum of Transport, as well as at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and in India’s Museum of Peace in Attari. It is also on display in Canada’s Parliament.
Further afield, Danish artist Adam Grabowski is one of many creating colourful miniature Lego trucks inspired by the folk art, while many fashion designers in Pakistan and India draw on it as a theme in their collections.
If praise from all around the world wasn’t enough, truck art made its way to the fashion capital itself last year, when Dolce & Gabbana used truck art-inspired Vespas as props in Milan for the promotion of its beauty campaign. The fashion-forward duo’s spring-summer 2016 line also has elements that seem a nod to this art form.
Truck art is also everyday art as much as a statement one, alive to politics. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arguably one of the most popular world leaders, recently made it to the back of a Pakistani truck, taking him on a roadshow miles from home, apparently in recognition of the multiculturalism he stands for.
Slowly but surely, truck art has gained an international profile, thanks in part to the work of artists like Ali, who has been involved with taking exhibits around the world and is the founder of Phool Patti, an independent social enterprise company working to promote truck art. “You will not find any hateful message on any truck or bus,” Ali tells GN Focus.
“Like our designs, our locations of exhibit have no bounds. No two motifs are identical, no two trucks are the same. And they are what you call in art world custom-designed.”
The art form’s popularity is growing by the day, he adds. “The government helps in many ways to promote the art as well. Recently, I was in India to decorate the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. I also painted a panel in Canada’s Parliament, and exhibited the art on different vehicles in the UK, Poland, Germany, the US…
“I even embellished a Turkish municipal bus, as a part of strengthening Pakistan-Turkey ties.”
Anjum Rana is another advocate for the preservation and promotion of this indigenous art form. Her Tribal Truck Art in Karachi provides a venue for artists to paint and sell their work. She has transposed truck art on to an interesting range of objects — everything from chairs, tables, plates and mugs to wall hangings, lanterns and photo frames, allowing it to flourish indoors.
Rana says the practice of Pakistani truck art dates back to the 1950s. “During that era, cargo from Karachi Port had to be sent to the north as far as Afghanistan but since automobiles were rare, people decorated the camels, horses and carts that carried the goods.
“Earlier, embellishing trucks was the pastime of the cleaners and drivers, keeping themselves busy on those long arduous journeys. They used to draw their favourite images reflecting their dreams, of rivers along winding roads lined with fir trees and cottages. They also painted birds, flowers and nationalist heroes on the trucks.”
Dig deeper into the roots of this folk art and it can be ascertained that each province in Pakistan has its own unique motifs. An expert can immediately identify where the trucker is from.
Decorating the giant trucks is big business, and firms and lorry owners can shell out anything from $5,000 (Dh18,360) to $10,000 to have their vehicles adorned. It can take a team of half a dozen artists who learn to paint through apprenticeships in informal community settings with very little or no education nearly six weeks to decorate a truck, not only painting but also working up intricate arabesque collages of laminated stickers.
It takes over a decade to fully master truck art, says Ali, as each design is based on the shape of the truck and the part to be decorated.
“The design depends on the owner of the truck,” adds Ali, who left school to follow his father Mohammad into the truck art business.
“Everyone wants their truck to be different from everyone else’s. Also, the demand for themes and designs varies with changing times.”
Active in the field for the past 28 years, he says the more a lorry grabs attention with its beauty, the better its owner thinks it will attract clients.
The stylistic conventions of truck art are continually changing, from folk art form to subsequent fusion with modern aesthetics, but Rana feels remaining true to tradition is the priority: “We need to stay with the basic essence of truck art and not try to modify it. The colours and motifs of this indigenous art are unique.
“It reflects our culture and folk art and has become part of our identity.”