Making truck art contemporary


Truck Art in Pakistan is more or less an underrated art form. On one hand, it is very popular among a certain circle, such as transporters, especially those hailing from the northern areas of Pakistan and Balochistan, while on the other hand others see upon it as extremely kitsch and lowbrow in the society.
The fact remains that Truck Art has now become much more popular and, like several other trends in fashion, as it is being promoted, it is becoming more and more accepted, especially since it has been liked by foreigners who are open to folk art of different countries. One of the first people to have begun with this idea was Anjum Rana, who herself is half Pukhtoon and lived in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa most of her life.
But Anjum says while she was surrounded by this vivid colourful art form, she did not much give it a thought until she shifted to Karachi and had a box painted for herself. When her friends saw it, they wanted to buy it, leaving her shocked. “I could not understand that people actually wanted to buy this art,” she says. “It started with a box and now business is flourishing, both for me and for my painters too.”
Trucks and buses both, and now even rickshaws, are adorned with colourful floral patterns, depicting human heroes, calligraphy of poetic verses and some humour replete words of wisdom from the driver himself. “Truck art may or may not be very symbolic,” explains Anjum. “Pukhtoon people are sensitive, peace loving people and they are art lovers through centuries. This is what they love doing. On their trucks they paint impressions of cities or urban and rural lives and of memories of their homes.”
This art flourished in the 1950s when the Karachi Port was opened and trucks of goods to and from Peshawer and further up were driven regularly. In those days, there was hardly any infrastructure and long days spent away from homes, lovers, friends, family and children were yearned for by these drivers. One can notice this on their paintings. Then there are paintings of human heroes. At one time Ayub Khan was the man for Hazarawaal people, while drivers hailing from Dera Ismail Khan adorned their buses with an impression of Musarrat Shaheen, the actress who dared fight against a religious hardliner in the days of elections.
After the world cup it was Imran Khan, while as struggle for Jihad took place and thoughts and values changed, fleets of F-16s and even Osama Bin Laden would haunt the backs of trucks. “Perhaps one of the most important figures is that of the imaginary Boraq, with the body of a horse and the face of a female,” says Anjum. “Besides that the most common form of the eye which is seen is a way of repelling evil.”
But with people like Anjum, who first started business in transferring this form of art to other things such as mugs, plates, lanterns, buckets and wheelbarrows, this art is now crossing boundaries to reach everyone. Only now, it is a‘popular’ art, as more and more people find it attractive, and understand its brilliant colourful beauty. “I have had orders from Canada, USA, UK,” says Anjum.
“The Evil Eye is loved by Canadians and they want it on glasses, mugs, plates; everything, which is so strange for me sometimes – the cultural difference – and then I am collaborating with a French company in making a whole dinner set which can be microwaved, dishwashed and everything.” But is this art going to flourish with the next generation? “I don’t know,” says Anjum. “People have not respected this art to a very high degree until now. I have seen ordinary artists selling their paintings for about Rs 20,000, but this art is called lowbrow and cheap, and kitsch.”
“However, today there is a whole bus being painted in Sweden in this style by some Karachi University students and in UK, they have given orders for this too. My work was meant to not only promote this style of art, it is also to encourage the painters to earn some more.” A very old man in Taxila for instance, she says, has become too weak to climb atop buses and paint in 50-degree temperature. Painting utensils and decorative items is ideal for him. If people produce a lot of a work in a month, they can earn up to Rs 50,000 a month, says Anjum.
While Anjum’s work sells most in Karachi and Islamabad, where the society is more cosmopolitan and multicultural and where foreigners visit a lot (Islamabad), Lahore is not much of a market for this but some people have tried to start the same business here too. The Rafi Peer group has also started one such business in Lahore, while in Qaddafi Stadium a shop called Malangi has just been reopened.
In Lahore, the shopkeeper Saleem says, this art craftwork is picking up too but it is slower than in other cities, as socially it is not well understood to that extent. It is essential that art of any form should be preserved, and enriched so that it can be widespread. Otherwise, like the wondrous imaginative form of cinema art, this art could die too.