An Artsy Love Story

Truck Art and Pakistan

Pakistan’s been in the news for a lot of wrong reasons and its beauty often goes unnoticed. It is much like the resilience of its people, who find ways to express themselves. Sometimes they do so through art.

Art and Pakistan: Ugly Stereotypes and Uglier Truths

Here is the amazing bit about Pakistani’s expressing themselves: they do it regardless of the unfortunate “how much” and “how little” we have. I am not denying that some of it may be true, the rest, however, is imposed stereotypes.

Speaking in terms of respect for the skilled, it is important to remember that there are many unique forms of art in Pakistan, and a plethora of artisans who practice traditional arts. These vary from region to region. If you think artists are not respected, you would be wise to think again.

Every man or woman with a skill as simple as binding a book by hand is referred to as ustaad, (teacher), and thus automatically commands a certain level of respect. This concept may be foreign to many, because unfortunately, this dimension in perspective is often forgotten. Previlege brings with it, a certain blindness. The class which writes about lack of support for art, is the same one which sits and makes paintings which find their way to posh art galleries. The credit is owed solely to the amount of money they have, or their sir names rather than their skill.

Then there are the overarching questions of a regressive culture overall, or at least that is the term the left and the West like to imprint on South Asia. Art being looked down upon as anti-religious, not being formally taught, lacking patrons, not finding it’s way to global exhibitions, and the list goes on. Yes, these are a few of the implications of a predominantly conservative culture.

But this does not mean that Pakistani’s do not value or protect art. Nor does it imply failure to excel at art. Around here, art is valued in a way the developed world can not possibly understand. Well, it may not be on display in museums like the Louvre. But every tribe from every ethnicity has its own form of embroidery, mirror work, and stone work. These skills are passed on from parents to their children, and the children hold on to them proudly, as a part of their identity. Every man, woman and child who has the skill, is an artisan, as well as a patron.

Finally, the much debated topic of freedom of speech, and right to expression. Individually, everyone of us may or may not agree with the fact that we, as Pakistani’s, are free to talk. We are free to talk, but the terms and conditions that apply, are as beautiful as they are horrendous. Our freedom to express ourselves is a complex paradox.

We can express our feelings through art, but not in art forms which originated in the West, like film. We enjoy strong female characters, but only if they maintain their aura of grace, and uphold certain cultural norms, yes, Haseena Moin comes to mind. We are free to talk, but at discretion of not the state, but the people: every socio-political and religious opinion comes at the potential cost of being ostracised. We live in a country where activism is allowed, but the boundaries for it, are dictated to us, often by the same people who complain about them.

Pakistani Truck Art

From the highways, the winding single roads, the beaten down mud tracks, the winding trails of flattened rocks forming what qualifies for a trail: our roads bear witness to colourful, ornate trucks rumbling down them.

These trucks, moving pieces of art, have grown into something larger than merely an exquisite form of hand-painting, and have gone way beyond tradition. Today, they are not only a form of cultural expression but an extremely important one. You might be wondering why. In a poor country, with low literacy, guess which message is most effective? Yes, one painted in pictures, continuously on the move.

Origins and History

The deeply rooted tradition has very practical origins. Back in the 1920s, Bedford trucks from England flooded the sub-continent. They remain a permanent feature on the roads of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to date.

Large wooden foreparts, shaped like crowns, known as taj, adorn the the truck beds. For this, the trucks are often lovingly referred to as shehzada, which means prince, by the locals. The taj is accompanied with decorative bumpers and wood paneling along the cabins. The chains and coin-shaped metal hangings with the bumpers earned these beauties the nickname “jingle trucks” by the occupying forces in Kabul.

During the late 1940s, the trucks set out on long-haul journeys to deliver goods across vast distances. Companys who owned the trucks took to logos rather than names to serve as identification for their trucks, keeping in mind local literacy rates. And lo behold, the art began to develop.

Truck Art in 2021

Today, Pakistan has pretty much “truck art everything”…quite literally!

Initially, with the rise of technology, there were concerns that the art will die out. Many were worried, and perhaps rightly so, that stickers would replace paint. Afterall, it is only natural that truckdrivers might prefer to adorn their shehzaday with stickers, cheaper and quicker, rather than opting for orthodox hand paint.

But Pakistani’s had other plans. Truck art is very much alive today, in perhaps more forms than drivers in the 1950’s could have imagined.

Pakistan’s most loved, for a while at least, have been featured on trucks. And yes, the list is diverse enough to give you a little shock.

Someone painted a Volkswagon, or a “beetle” as we call it in truck art. Someone else took it as a challenge and painted an airplane!

Phone cases, stickers, nail art, are we missing out on anything?

On a side note, the website selling these stickers has my heart. (No, this is not a paid promotion *eyeroll*)

Traditional meets contemporary: truck art style graffiti is now a thing!

This effervescent contemporary style of cultural art even went international! And guess what? It made a stop in Rockland!!

Since we have graffiti, how could we not have paintings!

Did you know you can tell where a truck was painted? You can recognise it from the style!

Although there is no hard and fast rule, the landscapes are usually created in Quetta. Animals and birds, geometric and floral, are arrtitbuted to Lahore. In Peshawar, we have more of calligraphy and floral patterns. If you go South, art in Karachi is as diverse as it’s people. You will cultural paintings, birds and absurd amalgams of styles from Balochistan and Punjab!

Also, Google doodles, doodle frames and smart artworks.

Design and fashion

Activism through tradition? Oh yes!

I forgot…decoration pieces, souvineers, bookmarks, sheets with prayers to hang in your car, and board games too.

Yep, you read it right. Apparently, we have truck art Ludo now!

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes. Our obsession with this exquisite art form is mildly unreal.

And since I just finished watching The Queen’s Gambit, I vote we need a truck art style chess set now.

All those in favour, say aye!

A media student who has a thing for photography, architecture, and cultural heritage, and loves to write!