A driver’s pride and joy by AAMIR YASIN

Pakistani trucks are known around the world as moving canvases. These trucks are lovingly decorated by their drivers, who spend their days and nights driving them through the length and breadth of the country. Decked in vibrant colours and bells, inscribed with romantic couplets and even images of political personalities, each truck tells a unique tale. But with the arrival of transportation companies, which have large fleets of modern trucks with containers, the traditional truck art is becoming less common.

More: http://www.dawn.com/news/1199360/

Decorative Truck Art from Pakistan

Pakistani Truck Art


Photograph by MARK RYCKAERT

On the roads of Pakistan you will find moving art on every road in the form of decorated trucks and vehicles. With dazzling colours, ornate detailing and magnificent trinkets, these moving art exhibits inject your daily commute with Pakistani culture and symbolism.

Please enjoy this small sample of decorated trucks from Pakistan. There are many more examples of this amazing style, the Sifter will definitely be doing a follow-up post!


Photograph by AFRAZOV




Photograph by RAJA QAISER




Photograph via MISHARI MUQBIL




Photograph via FAISAL RAFIQ


Photograph by SYED KAZMI


Photograph by AHTISHAM78


– Truck art and decorations can cost upwards of $5,000. A hefty price when you consider the average income is around $2,100

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AN INTERVIEW WITH PAKISTANI ARTIST FATIMA ZAHRA HASSAN Thirst of the Soul Aug 27, 2013 Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art”.

(Fatima Zahra Hassan)

Fatima Zahra Hassan was one of the early graduates of the innovative miniature painting program established at the National College of Art in Lahore. Having mastered the age-old technique, Hassan set for herself the much more daunting task of infusing her work with the same perennial spirituality that emanates from the best of the Islamic miniature tradition. The artist explored the link between art and mysticism further while pursuing her Masters at the Royal College of Art and then Ph.D. at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Currently a professor of fine art in the United Arab Emirates, Hassan continues to paint and show her work in Europe and the Middle East. She is presently participating in “Muslima”, the global online show organized by the International Museum of Women.


Fatima Zahra Hassan / Courtesy of the Artist

The National College of Art is now known internationally because of the many outstanding artists it has generated. You were one of the early graduates of its miniature program. Is its’ success due to outstanding teaching or to the fact that the art of miniature allows students to connect with their past without turning their backs on modernity? Many contemporary artists working in the genre, including yourself, often bring to it a contemporary approach and aesthetic.

Well, I am one of those who believe that teachers should definitely get due credit for their students’ achievements. I can single out Ustadh Bashir Ahmad in Lahore and Keith Critchlow and Paul Marchant in London. But it is not entirely the teaching. It is the traditional training of that very art form, which has stood the test of the time and is part of a living tradition. This particular program connects so well with Pakistan’s illustrious history that students can relate to it. As an early graduate, I probably suffered the most only because I decided to follow the path, which was less travelled at the time. The trend was then to paint something that was popular and called contemporary art and apparently had more followers.


Love Charms (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Water colour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

What were attitudes like then towards traditional art forms?

Artists like me who believed in the sanctity of traditional art were far less in number. I strongly believe that modernity grows from tradition and without tradition there is no modernity… there are millions of artists who are breaking away from tradition but people like us keep it alive, otherwise it will all be dead one day and there would not be anything left for posterity. It is also difficult to practice within a discipline and strict regime and follow certain parameters. Whereas it is easier to break away! One needs more time, passion, and skill to produce traditional work as opposed to something that needs manufacturing.

imageA Fall, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on patterned and printed ‘Wasli’ paper, 2011/12, 15×25 cm / Courtesy of the Artist


I Follow the Religion of Love, Watercolour gouache on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 32×50 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Miniature painting in the Muslim world generally formed part of the arts of the book. Your work whether visually or conceptually more ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ is also grounded in text, inspired by Sufi literature, especially Rumi and Bulleh Shah. How do you understand and experience the relationship between the literary and visual arts in your own practice?

The book or kitab has had a pivotal role in Islam and Muslim history in imparting knowledge; therefore the arts of book or paintings done in order to convey what the text had to say became very popular in the Muslim world under various patrons. I grew up in a household where I was surrounded by books. My parents were keen on books, specially my father who had his own library that housed thousands of books and who was and still is an avid reader of history and theology. I grew up reading the poetry and literature of famous Muslim scholars. My maternal grandmother was also instrumental in introducing me to many leading poets and writers as she herself was a poetess and composed poetry in Persian and Urdu. At the age of twelve, I was already exposed to Sa’adi, Rumi, Attar, the Shahnameh, Firdawsi, Jami, Ghalib, Iqbal and many more…

I was keen on classical and Sufi music and was also interested in Qawwali which led me to the poetry of Bulleh Shah. I realized that politics, gender and socio-economic issues become irrelevant when one is a believer and has a spiritual connection with the Divine. For me, as a traditionalist, I have always felt the need to incorporate text in my work, using both image and words to convey the message of Divine Love.


I Am A Flower, Photograph on archival paper and watercolour gouache, 2009/10, 20×30 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Some contemporary artists have appropriated or rather subverted the miniature genre to broach personal, social or political issues. But it seems that your work remains focused on the unchanging needs and aspirations of the human soul and the power of beauty, with the exception of the paintings addressing the issue cum violence of American drones.

A majority of contemporary artists chose to appropriate or decided to address issues pertaining to their circumstances or needs, I would say. I realized that I had to continue what I was taught and how I was taught. I was not trained to please galleries or collectors and buyers but to please my consciousness and paint on the ethos I believed in. My training in London harnessed the concept of sacred art and taught me a great deal about perennial philosophy, which is a cardinal element in sacred and traditional art. The Islamic Visual Arts’ program advocates “Art for Purpose” and not “Art for Art’s Sake”. Art should have utility and be functional which makes it more like design. However, its’ principal elements are: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We have to question ourselves, when we look at some artwork, whether or not this art is truthful or whether it has beauty – which is sense datum – and, above all, whether it really emanates goodness.


The Drones, Watercolour gouache, gold leaf on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 25×8 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

The distinction that’s often made between narrative or figurative art and abstract art does not really apply to your work in the sense that even your most figurative pieces are allegorical and symbolic. Could you say a few words about this?

I personally feel that my work is both. My training in traditional South Asian and Middle Eastern manuscript illustration and then further grounding in ornament design including geometric and floral design has trained me to use symbols and allegories and create paintings that have stories to tell, for example the piece “Hide No More” named after the poem which inspired it and concludes with:

But I have fastened you in my heart. Now whither can you flee? O, the spouse of Bullah, I was your slave. And was dying for the sight of your sweet face. Ever and always I made hundreds of entreaties. Now sit securely in the cage of my body.

The poem’s language is so simple but has so much depth. As with all mystical poetry, there is a kind of double meaning. The subject is how elusive the Beloved is and how fast and fleeting the vision of Reality is. There is a perpetual game of hide and seek and the lover, again female, must constantly be on the watch so as not to lose sight of the Beloved, even though the Beloved tries to hide. The one who is constant and persevering and makes “hundreds of entreaties” will eventually capture the Beloved and fasten Him in his or her heart, so that finally He will “sit securely in the cage of my body.”

My painting shows a peacock and woman sitting against a pale sea-green background painted as a carpet, a crescent moon in the night-sky behind with stars like a jali screen with lotus flowers and leaves in between. The overall hues are different shades of blue and green. Green, as your readers know, is considered a mystical color in Islam associated with Paradise and the Prophet and blue is the color of the Heavens. I use these two colors most as they seem more than the others to indicate the infinite mystery of the Divine. The female figure is wearing yellow, which represents spring, new life and joy but it is also the color of longing and waiting for the Beloved. And while the peacock represents many different ideas in different traditions, one of its meanings in the Indo-Pakistani tradition, is that it stands for the male Beloved.


Hide no More (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

From a Traditionalist perspective, art, life and the spiritual path are all seen as transformative, perhaps even alchemical, processes. Do you sense a direct link between the bettering of your soul and that of your brush?

In traditional society and in particular with reference to Islamic or Muslim society, all is connected. One’s profession, daily life and spirituality are all interconnected. It means that all your work as a visual artist is a spiritual process and has an alchemy, which transforms you into a soul that is contented, known as the “Nafs Al-Mutmainnah”.

You have stated elsewhere that it is not easy for artists like you to find a place in the art world even if prestigious collectors of Islamic art such as Prince Charles and the Aga Khan have acquired some of your paintings. However, in the last decade, we have increasingly seen work openly visually related to the Muslim world and Islam exhibited in mainstream art galleries, East and West. How do you explain this: the vagaries of the art market, the development of an active contemporary art scene in the Muslim world, the growing presence of Islam and Muslims in the West, a growing search and assertion of identity? Traditional Islamic art never ceased but it seems to be less confined to specific venues than before.

We have seen how the world changed after 9/11 and while it has done so much harm to Muslims as a whole, it has also done some good to Muslim culture. The world suddenly became interested in Islam and its culture and civilization. The world wanted to see the art, which was produced by artists living in Muslim countries. Curators, collectors, galleries and museum directors were all traveling to these countries to discover the art but the artists with Muslim identity, who were already living in the West, were in a different situation. The ones who submitted fully and were not resilient, they gained and the ones who kept the tradition alive were not necessarily getting any favors. The West generally wants to see art from the Islamic world that shows the negative side and all the lows rather than give an opportunity to everyone including those who are working on interfaith subjects, such as peace, benevolence, harmony and the love for humanity. The West is keener to see burka-clad women, women in niqab, and women who are deprived. I have yet to see interest in art from the Muslim world, which shows the positive side. In my case, I do not work with any gallery or agent but rather through a network, which helps me to see and undertake commissions.


Rumi, The Seeker, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper / Courtesy of the Artist

I understand what you are saying about the West comforting stereotypes about Islam but I think that there are also many exceptions. For example, Western collectors are sensitive to the beauty of calligraphy –a traditional and beautiful art– especially when used in large scale paintings. Beauty is at the heart of Islamic art and this –I think– explains its great appeal beyond the Muslim world. The universal appeal of beauty is central to your own work as is its’ resuturing to goodness and truth. How would you define in words the beauty you seek to attain in your art?

As I mentioned earlier, beauty is a sense datum. Its’ importance is repeatedly stated in the Qur’an and the Hadith such as, “Verily, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty” and “God has inscribed beauty upon all things”. Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art.


The Green Coat in Wilderness, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 20×16 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

What are you presently working on now and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am currently working on a series of paintings based on various topics such as construc-tion and building and how the South Asian labor force has played such an important role in building the modern UAE. I have taken an inspiration from an old 15th century Bihzad miniature in which he has painted a scene of the city of Herat’s construction.

Another series is based on “Objects of Desire” from the 60s and 70s such as the Vespa Scooter, typewriters, Raleigh bicycles, the Singer sewing machine and so on. The idea is to show these objects well drawn and painted to a 21st century audience. These were every one’s dream objects as opposed to today’s gadgets. I was born in the late sixties and I grew up with these objects myself, which were very beautiful. Being a British Pakistani, I strongly feel connected to these objects. For my kids, however, they have no meaning.

I am also working on old maps of the world, in particular US maps, and trying to transform and insert one Islamic pattern using a part of it to symbolize a drone. I never take a direct approach; rather, I use symbols, allegory and metaphor. I believe in painting that needs to be unfolded. I like mystery and most of my works have a maze or a labyrinth like structure, which is complex. Traditional miniature paintings or paintings from manuscripts always had mystery and, to this day, when you view a painting you will keep on unfolding it. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

I have two solo exhibitions and one group show coming up and am trying to paint different subjects from what I have painted before. In addition, I write and have many writing projects on the go and so life is very busy.


Night Of Union (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

I know you write about Mughal and Persian painting and have also published two really lovely children’s books on Ibn Sina and Rumi which can be seen on your website. We wish you every success with your numerous interesting projects.

I really want to thank you and the IAM team for giving this opportunity to speak about my humble contribution to the arts of the Muslim World. I shall surely keep IAM posted with my projects.


The Trucks of Pakistan

Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan; Written by Richard Covington, Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIK

Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck’s cab like a crown. Like Ali’s father, who first put a brush into his son’s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter’s workshop after mornings in school.

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Lying on his back beneath the truck—a 10-ton, six-wheel Japanese Hino—a body repairman strings a chain of hammered steel peepul leaves to dangle around the chassis. When the truck is under way, these metal leaves will clang together, creating a cacophony that is music to a driver’s ears. Above the chain man, a carpenter is chiseling out the wooden panels adorning the doors. Nearby, the truck’s owner sits observing the work in progress as an outdoor barber lathers the man’s face for a shave. A crooning pop tune crackles out of a tinny radio as a pair of pariah kites flutters noisily home to roost. Welcome to Garden Road, the traffic-choked heart of Karachi’s booming truck-painting industry.All across Pakistan, this rolling folk art has turned village lanes, city streets and long-distance highways into a national gallery without walls, a free-form, kaleidoscopic exhibition in perpetual motion. The vast majority of Pakistan’s trucks, buses and motorized rickshaws are riots of color, bedizened top to bottom with eye-popping landscapes, portraits, calligraphic poetry, religious verses and wisecracking expressions of star-spangled banter. Only the biggest, blandest container freight trucks, the 18-wheeler rigs, escape decoration, looking naked by comparison.

The dazzling, eclectic choice of images is a cultural grab bag, mingling with equal gusto East and West, secular and sacred. Pakistani film stars like Musarrat Shaheen and athletes like cricket legend Imram Khan vie for space with figures from Greek myth and European icons from the Mona Lisa to Princess Diana. Decked out with romanticized visions of Pakistani military heroes like Sarwar Shaheed, F-16 fighter jets and Ghauri missiles, some trucks become roving patriotic billboards. Others give prominence to religious shrines like the Ka’bah in Makkah and the Faysal Mosque in Islamabad, or they display verses writ large on an image of an open Qu’ran. The Prophet’s winged horse, Buraq, is a favorite emblem, handily symbolizing trustworthy devotion and speed. Dreamlike scenes of wooded lakes and snow-capped mountains, alpine hunting lodges and tigers chasing deer are framed by flowers and diamond-shaped reflective strips in bright red, orange and green.

In the cabs, faux marble Formica-paneled doors open onto gaudy treasure caves filled with artificial roses and marigolds spun of silk and satin. Tiny faceted mirrors and rick-rack ring the windshields, while swaying pompoms and wall clocks festooned with flashing lights hang from the ceilings. Giant heavy-lidded eyes painted on side panels and pastel-colored scarves fluttering from cab windows are intended to ward off the evil eye.

The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, says Kenoyer. "You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to."Americans got a tiny taste of Pakistani truck painting in the summer of 2002 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, when Ali and bodywork expert Jamil ud-Din brought a truck from Karachi to Washington, D.C. They decorated it right there on the National Mall, as outdoor artists-in-residence. As a talent scout for the festival’s Silk Road theme, truck aficionado Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and a top us scholar of Pakistani culture, chose the pair for their versatility in incorporating the country’s disparate styles of truck art. Their finished masterpiece, a 1976 Bedford, is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

As co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, based at the ancient Indus Valley site that flourished nearly 5000 years ago, Kenoyer takes a very long view of truck painting. The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, he says, to well before the mud-brick city of Harappa was constructed.

Today’s truckers are the successors of Neolithic traders who moved goods along roughly similar routes from the coast of Pakistan inland to Central Asia, using what artifacts show were heavily decorated camel caravans. Today, Kenoyer says, “the paint jobs identify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.”

Truck and bus painting and bodywork are also big business. In Karachi alone, a port city of 14 million on the Arabian Sea, more than 50,000 people toil in small, family-run workshops comprised of apprentices and highly trained artisans, each with his well-defined specialty. Dominated by the painstaking ethic of proudly independent craftsmen, this time-consuming manufacture is the opposite of mass production: Every hand-painted truck, bus and rickshaw, despite sharing numerous signs and symbols, virtually screams its uniqueness.

A stroll through the warren of streets and alleys of the dusty Garden Road district, one of five Karachi neighborhoods devoted to vehicle decoration, offers an education in the truck painter’s art. In one open-air stall close to Ali’s workshop, a dapper metalworker, improbably clothed in an immaculate white knee-length tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers away at prefabricated nickel-steel mud-guard flaps, creating repoussé tigers and chevron designs that an assistant subsequently tints bright red, yellow and green. In a hole-in-the-wall shop nearby, a man surrounded by stacked cans of pigments and powders mixes electric orange fluorescent compound into resin varnish to produce vividly glossy lacquers that glow in the dark. Down one lane, a 14-year-old boy brushes an iron radiator grille with fuming acid to remove rust.

Rows of shops are filled with all manner of outlandish ornaments and tantalizing accessories. Suspended beneath an array of beadwork eagles in one tiny emporium, shimmering gilt peacocks and fish twirl gently in the breeze. Another store is crammed with plastic flowers and miniature chandeliers to furnish cab interiors. Hubcaps with spinning metal cones spill out of another. Nearby, the specialty is shiny model planes that flash red and green lights.

Truck owners spend small fortunes on all this. A decent paint job costs $500 to $1000—perhaps more, depending on how splendiferous it is. Body decoration and repair can easily run an extra $2000. All told, a basic painting and body job adds up to a minimum of $2500, equivalent to two years of the average truck driver’s salary. As a rule, however, owners or owner-drivers pay for the decoration, although hired drivers employed by a company are often free to choose whatever illustrations they like.

This labor-intensive operation usually takes six to 10 weeks. During this period, many drivers hover around the workshops like part of the extended family, suggesting possible subjects and alterations, earning nothing during the time their truck is being spiffed up. Unbelievably, the majority of truckers splurge on a full makeover of their vehicles every three or four years.

Ali, who receives most of his commissions via word of mouth, always signs his work, and this discreet advertising regularly attracts new clients.

“Owners get what they pay for,” the artist explains. “The fancier the painting, the more it costs.” Recently, one particularly demanding trucking magnate lavished more than $13,000 on outfitting his rig. The mammoth undertaking took more than four months.

“It’s worth the expense,” volunteers truck owner Doda Khan after his shave at Ali’s workshop. “More people will hire me if I have a beautifully painted truck.” Khan is a native of Quetta who makes his living transporting wood and glass in Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital.

“Truckers don’t even spend so much money on their own houses,” marvels Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi and a walking encyclopedia of Pakistani truck-decoration lore. “I remember one driver who told me that he put his life and livelihood into the truck. If he didn’t honor it with the proper paint job, he would feel he was being ungrateful.”

Kazi is convinced that truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistani society’s pervasive desire to heighten reality. “We have an irresistible tendency to decorate everything—from lowly tape cassette players to brides to trucks—because we’re such dreamers and escapists,” she declares. “It’s all part of our need to intensify experience, perhaps to make us forget our drab lives.”

With her angular good looks, long, striking gray hair and upper-class accent, Kazi seems an unlikely champion of truck-painting esthetics. Her passion for this underappreciated art was piqued a decade ago when she dreamed up the idea of having her university students decorate a truck, fill it with paintings and drive the mobile magnum opus around Pakistan.

“The idea was to see how ordinary people would react,” Kazi explains in her home in north Karachi, where photographs of painted trucks share space with war-themed Afghan kilims depicting tanks and helicopters, kitschy cinema posters featuring turbaned Lotharios, old-fashioned metal talcum-powder boxes with demurely smiling housewives, intricately embroidered Sindhi wall hangings and a whimsical Ali Baba hoard of eclectic folk art exotica. “Art has become such an elite activity and so marginalized in this country that I wanted to try to take it out of the galleries and literally get it on the road,” she adds.

Reaction to this nomadic student exhibition was largely favorable, even if the professional truck artists turned out to be the toughest critics. “The Garden Road painters said the pictures were interesting, ‘but you’ve painted them very badly,’” the professor recalls. “The students were flabbergasted. They thought they possessed superior talents just because they were in art school, but they soon realized how sophisticated the technique really is. The paint has to be applied in delicate layers and glazes. You can’t just brush it on the way you do with oil paint.”

Bangladesh and Thailand have their painted rickshas. Japan has its semitrailers strung with flashing, custom-fitted lights. The Philippines are reputed for their garish “Jeepnies,” collective taxis whose bodies are built atop vintage us Jeep chassis. In Haiti, “tap-taps,” jaunty buses dressed up in comic-book colors, ply the island’s roads. But nowhere do vehicle artists get quite as carried away as in Pakistan. Kazi, who holds a master’s degree in English literature, trained as a sculptor in the uk and now creates interactive exhibitions with local folk artists, set out to discover why. After 10 years of scouring workshops, haunting ornament shops and chatting up truck dealers, transport company proprietors, drivers, artists, craftsmen and suppliers, the art professor has pieced together an informal history of truck painting that she someday hopes to turn into a book.

In the late 1940’s, she says, when trucks first began to deliver long-haul goods, each company developed its own painted logo so that illiterate people, then and now the majority of Pakistanis, could recognize who owned the trucks. Displays of solidarity with the infant nation, partitioned from India in 1947, were always a sure bet. One enterprisingly loyal transporter featured a crescent and star modeled on the Pakistani flag; another had a sign tracing the geographical outlines of the new country. Gradually, these logos became more fanciful.

"Truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistan, Kazi believes. "It's all part of our need to intensify experience."“They were badges of competition,” Kazi explains. “And the more flamboyant the design, the better business became.”

Although truck decoration initially mimicked motifs that had been found on camel caravans and oxcarts for thousands of years, the practice took a quantum leap in the 1950’s when Hajji Hussain hit town. Renowned for the stylized murals and frescoes he painted in palaces in his native Gujarat province in India, on the border with Pakistan, Hussain settled in Karachi when he married a local woman.

With palaces in short supply in working-class Karachi, Hussain cleverly shifted gears, adjusting his flair for subtle line and shading to the task of embellishing horse carriages and trucks with discreet floral borders. The decoration did not remain discreet for long, as its appeal quickly led to its enveloping the entire exterior surfaces of the vehicles.

In the 1960’s, the country’s economy boomed and, along with it, the transportation industry. The Bedford, a British-built truck with a rounded cab and 2.3-meter-high (7′) paneled sides that give it a precarious, top-heavy look, became the prestige truck of choice. Not by chance, Kazi soon discovered: The son of Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president from 1962 to 1969, set himself up as the country’s sole Bedford dealer and made sure that Bedfords were the only trucks imported into the country. (Locally manufactured trucks were no competition.) “The style of painting and dec- oration evolved to fit the Bedford like a glove,” Kazi says.

Mockingly dubbed “rockets,” the lumbering Bedfords made up for their snail’s-pace acceleration with virtual indestructibility, indefatigably chugging along a quarter of a century and more after they first rolled off the assembly lines. “The owners don’t mind changing engines. It’s the chassis that is so precious,” Kazi explains. “Original Bedford springs, for instance, are like gold for truckers.”

When Bedford’s parent company, Vauxhall, stopped production of the much-loved Bedfords some 13 years ago, Japanese imports like Hino, Nissan and Isuzu supplanted them. “Even though the Japanese trucks have better fuel economy, superior brakes, longer wheelbases and bigger windshields, there’s still nostalgia for the Bedfords,” reckons Kazi. “It’s only recently that the decorative panels, carving and accessories have somewhat grudgingly been adapted to fit these newer trucks.”

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the increasing sophistication of truck decoration began to reflect the growing wealth of the drivers and the rise of a new urban class. “People who had come from poor village backgrounds suddenly had money,” Kazi observes. “They were richer than their parents and ancestors and wanted to show off their new-found confidence, position and authority.” For rival truck and bus owners jostling for business, dueling paint jobs became essential for gaining a competitive edge.

Boldly speculating where only academics—and certainly not the artists themselves—dare to tread, the professor draws a parallel between contemporary truck design and the exquisitely refined court decoration of 16th- and 17th-century Mughal emperors. In Kazi’s view, truck cabs boasting a profusion of dangling mirrors and fringed silk and satin embroidery are direct descendants of the Sheesh Mahal (“mirror palace”), sumptuous halls of mirrors and brocade found in palaces and forts in Lahore, Patiala, Jaipur and Agra.

“The Mughals loved this play of light where one candle could illuminate a vast hall,” remarks Kazi. “Why not truck artists and drivers?”

Some of the more popular landscape scenes, those depicting the hunt, lions, grouse, deer, hunting lodges or mountain chalets, are taken straight out of Mughal court painting, she maintains.

Later, when a visitor tries to describe Kazi’s theory of the Mughal connection to Haider Ali, the veteran painter flashes a puzzled, indulgent smile. It’s clear he’s not buying it.

“I paint from photos the drivers bring me, designs they point out on other trucks, anything they want,” he says. “And if they don’t know what they want, I make up scenes from my imagination.”

Generally, the painting follows an informal, unwritten grammar. The taj, or prow, above the cab is customarily reserved for mosques and other holy monuments. Side panels fizz with waterfalls, lakes, mountains, landscapes, hunting lodges and animals. The rear of the truck is typically emblazoned with a single large portrait encircled by flowers, vines and geometric configurations.

Ponderous but virtually indestructible, "rockets"--British-made Bedfords--are still the ultimate workhorses of the trucking industry throughout Pakistan.One recent trend speaks volumes about the emerging fortunes of truck owners and drivers. Instead of putting someone famous in the place of honor on back of their trucks, some drivers have commissioned portraits of their sons. “It’s part of the country’s newfound upward social mobility,” says Kazi. “Now, truck drivers feel they don’t have to boost their status with celebrities; their own sons are good enough.”

When a new truck comes in for outfitting, it is totally bare bones, with only a cab and a chassis—albeit invariably reinforced to within an inch of its life. Six-wheel rigs designed to carry five-ton payloads are routinely bolstered to haul 10, 15, even 20 tons. Used trucks are overhauled according to the owners’ wishes and pocketbooks, ranging from simple paint jobs all the way to complete makeovers of bodywork and decorative art.

Like a medieval guild, the division of labor in truck and bus workshops is highly demarcated, with individual artisans responsible for each stage of the process. One person is in charge of erecting frames of steel ribs over flatbed floors of hard pine and, for buses, covering the frames with steel and plastic shells. (Ordinarily, cargo in open trucks is wrapped in tarpaulins strapped down by ropes or simply left uncovered.) Separately, an electrician installs wiring while a metalworker fashions dangling steel balls, hammered-steel mud flaps and shiny leaf chains. The carpenter who carves arabesque inlays on cab doors and taj crowns of walnut or deodar cedar is distinct from the upholstery specialist who stitches beadwork into fancy cab-seat cushions and embroiders cloth flaps on windows with gold and silver thread. While a master artist like Haider Ali paints large portraits and landscapes, he commonly relies on an assistant to fill in backgrounds and borders. In a culture that puts great stock in poetry, there are even a handful of scholars and poets whom drivers commission to write original poetic inscriptions for their trucks or search out a few well-turned phrases by other authors.

“One classic line,” says Kazi, is “‘If your mother prays for you, it’s like a breeze from heaven.’” Other selections, particularly on buses, are racier, like the teasing, convoluted come-on that reads, “I wish I were the book you are reading, so that when you fall asleep and the book falls on your chest, I would be so close to you.” In general, she points out, trucks display themes of distance, the journey and spiritual longing, while “90 percent of the messages on buses have to do with love, particularly unrequited love.” (Rickshas, with far less space, make do with a cryptic word or two like “I wish” or “broken pearl.”)

“Sometimes you have no idea what they mean,” laughs Kazi.

Like western pictorial allusions and the imported trucks themselves, many of the materials used in truck decoration also come from outside Pakistan, and they are put to uses the manufacturers never dreamed of. Shipped into the country in 10-centimeter-wide (4”) rolls, reflective tape from Germany and Japan is cut, shaped and layered to create fantastical compositions. “Because the roads were not lit, reflectors were essential,” Kazi explains. “But truck decorators turned this pragmatic necessity into an excuse to go wild.”

Other regional idioms include calligraphy in Peshawar, geometric designs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, woodwork in Baluchistan and camel-bone inlay work in Sindh.Although Karachi is the country’s principal center for truck decoration, other regions have evolved their own signature idioms. In Peshawar, trucks sport far more calligraphy than illustration. In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, designers cut out colored plastic sheets and layer them to create unusual patterns and geometric effects over the truck exterior. Artisans in Baluchistan and Peshawar are esteemed for their magnificently detailed woodwork carved on cab doors and interiors. Camel-bone inlay is emblematic of Sindh, while stainless-steel peacock appliqués are popular both in Sindh and the Punjab.

Frequently, truck decoration mirrors the country’s demographic shifts. When Kashmiri woodcarvers migrated south to Karachi in the mid-1980’s to escape fighting in their homeland, many found work refurbishing trucks. Their spidery filigree tracery soon began to pop up on the doors and taj crowns of local vehicles.

For such a vibrant industry, supercharged with color, the future, unfortunately, looks distinctly gray. Unlike the current generation of painters, body workers and decorators who learned their trades from their fathers, uncles and older brothers, the upcoming generation shows little interest in following in their relatives’ footsteps. Nor do their parents necessarily want them to.

Take 40-year-old Abdul Aziz, who started painting at age 15 in his father’s workshop. “Business is not good now because there are too many truck artists,” sighs Aziz in his blisteringly hot bus-painting atelier in the Landhi district of east Karachi. “My son will have a better future if he finishes school and takes up a more secure profession.”

Still, with all the irrepressible energy that goes into truck decoration, it’s hard to imagine this quintessentially Pakistani craft dying out any time soon, particularly with painters like Master Shahid Sahab around to renew the tradition.

“Master Sahab paints crazy, wacky things like army officers waterskiing, a Saracen warrior slaying Godzilla, mythic Greek heroes in togas,” chuckles Kazi. “Then he’ll put plastic lovebirds on the dashboard and a ludicrous-sounding horn that blasts out a wolf whistle. I love this kind of madness.”

Somehow, you feel sure that the rest of Pakistan does, too. For optimists like Kazi, who shudder at the unthinkable prospect of the country’s roads becoming as drab as any garden-variety interstate or autobahn, this moveable feast of imagery is nowhere near a dead end.

Richard Covington Paris-based author Richard Covington(richard.covington@free.fr) writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for theInternational Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times,Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and other publications.
Shahidul Alam Shahidul Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library (www.drik.net), the Bangladesh Photo Institute and Pathshala (The South Asian Institute of Photography), as well as the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Asia. He lives in Dhaka.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan – https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/exhibitions/garden-ideas-contemporary-art-pakistan

Sep 18 2014 to Jan 18 2015
Bani Abidi
Nurjahan Akhlaq
David Chalmers Alesworth
Aisha Khalid
Atif Khan
Imran Qureshi

Created for pleasure, spiritual reflection, and aesthetic contemplation, gardens have held many meanings. Beyond their beauty, they represent the human impulse to organize, contain, and collect the natural world. Without cultivation a garden would cease to exist. Similarly, without cultivation of the mind and the soul, it is believed a society cannot progress. “To dwell is to garden,” wrote the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, reminding us of the central role of culture as part of our existence. The Garden of Ideas brings together the work of six internationally acclaimed Pakistani artists whose creations play with, question, and interrogate the timeless theme of the garden. Several pieces have been made in direct response to works in the Aga Khan Museum’s collection and to the Museum’s own reinterpretation of an Islamic garden (the chahar bagh) as designed by Vladimir Djurovic.

Sharmini Pereira, guest curator of this exhibition, has garnered international attention as a curator, publisher, and conference speaker. Based in Sri Lanka and New York, she has written extensively on contemporary Asian art and is the director and founder of Raking Leaves, a non-profit independent publishing organization and the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture, and Design in Sri Lanka. In 2011 she was the international guest curator of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, which recognizes artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, and in 2006 she served as co-curator of the inaugural Singapore Biennale.

Bani Abidi (b. 1971, Karachi) received her BFA degree from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1994 and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. Over the past decade, Abidi has worked primarily in digital art and has become Pakistan’s leading figure in contemporary video. Abidi held her first solo international exhibition in 2011 at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. She has exhibited in several international group exhibitions, including the Berlin Biennale (2014); dOCUMENTA 13 (2012); Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2011); the Singapore Biennale (2006); and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (2005). Her work is included in several permanent collections, including those of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The British Museum, London; and the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas. Abidi lives and works in Berlin and Karachi.

Nurjahan Akhlaq (b. 1979, Lahore) moved to Canada via Turkey from Pakistan in 1993 and studied filmmaking at Concordia University, Montreal, before earning her MFA at Goldsmiths College, London, in 2009. Akhlaq is part of a younger generation of filmmakers that has also been involved in exploring the conceptual possibilities of collage and print. Her videos have been screened in international exhibitions and festivals, including Monitor Reruns, A Space Gallery, Toronto, in 2014; the Mumbai International Film Festival, India; the Kassel Documentary and Video Festival, Germany; the EBS International Documentary Festival, Seoul, Korea; and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2005. Akhlaq’s film Death in the Garden of Paradise (2004) was an Official Selection at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto in 2005. She lives and works in Lahore and Toronto.

David Chalmers Alesworth (b. 1957, Wimbledon, United Kingdom) gained his BA Honours in sculpture from Wimbledon School of Art in 1980. In 1987 he relocated to Pakistan and gained his MFA in New Media from Transart Institute Berlin/NYC in 2010. In the mid to late 1990s, he began working with Pakistani truck artists and other urban craftspeople to produce a series of public installations conceived in collaboration with the Pakistani artist Durriya Kazi. Alesworth’s works and teachings influenced many Pakistani artists known as the Karachi Pop generation, who focused their attention on Pakistan’s street bazaars, the aesthetics of cinema hoardings, truck art, and the public realm. His art has been exhibited in exhibitions that include the Berlin Biennale (2014); Lines of Control, British Council, London (2011); Gardens of Babel, Rhotas-2 Gallery, Lahore (2011); and Half-Life, NCA Gallery, Lahore (2009). His work is also found in collections at the Pakistan National Collection, Islamabad; the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; and the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Alesworth lives and works in Lahore.

Aisha Khalid (b. 1972, Faisalabad) was trained in miniature painting and graduated from the National College of Arts in 1993. Khalid was schooled in classical miniature painting and has become a leading figure in developing the contemporary miniature. She is one of the few artists to experiment with large-scale painting and abstraction and has also worked with video and textiles. Khalid is among a handful of Pakistani artists who have had solo shows of their work, including Larger Than Life, Whitworth Art Gallery, United Kingdom (2012); Larger Than Life, Corvi-Mora, London (2012); Pattern to Follow, Chawkandi Art, Karachi (2010); and Conversations, Pump House Gallery, London (2008). She has had group exhibitions at the Sharjah Biennale (2013); the Moscow Biennale (2013); the Venice Biennale (2009); the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In 2011 Khalid was awarded the Jameel Prize’s People’s Choice Award, and in 2012 she was a winner of the Alice Award (Artist Book Category). Her work is included in several permanent collections, including the Sharjah Art Museum (Sharjah), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), and the World Bank (Washington, D.C.). She lives and works in Lahore.

Atif Khan (b. 1972, Sahiwal) graduated with distinction in fine art from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1997. He was awarded the UNESCO-ASHBURG Bursary in 1998 and completed a residency at Darat-al-Funun in Amman, Jordan. In 2007 he received the Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award. He was also appointed artist-in-residence at the Swansea Print Workshop in Wales in 2005–06; the London Print Studio, United Kingdom; and the Glasgow Print Studio, Scotland, in 2008. Khan has participated in workshops in India, Bangladesh, and Jordan and has participated in exhibitions that include More Interpolation, Rohtas-2, Lahore (2009); Anthropology, Chawkandi Art, Karachi (2011); Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (2012); and Landscape of the Heart, Ceri Richards Gallery, United Kingdom (2013). He lives and works in Lahore.

Imran Qureshi (b. 1972, Hyderabad) completed his BFA at the National College of Arts in 1993. He is one of Pakistan’s leading figures in developing the contemporary miniature painting. In 2013 he was named Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year and in the same year was invited to create the prestigious roof garden commission at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He has held numerous international solo shows, including Imran Qureshi: The God of Small Things, Eli and Edyth Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing (2014); Midnight Garden, Gandhara Art, Pao Galleries, Hong Kong (2014); and And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood, Zahoor Al Akhlaq Gallery, National College of Arts, Lahore (2010). Group exhibitions include Don’t You Know Who I Am? at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (2014); The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th Venice Biennale, Venice (2013), the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012); the Sharjah Biennial (2011); Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California (2011); East-West Divan: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, La Scuola Grande della Misericordia, Venice (2011); Hanging Fire, Asia Society, New York (2009); and the Singapore Biennale (2006). Qureshi lives and works in Lahore.

Imran Qureshi, Rise and Fall (2014) (Detail), gouache on wasli (paper), 57.6 x 49.3 cm. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vuchot, Hong Kong.