August Issue 2014
“They have these trucks in Pakistan that even the Brazilians would look at and say, ‘Nahhh, that’s too much colour,’” Robin Williams joked on a late night talk show.
The American comedian may not have been too impressed, but for many Pakistanis at home and abroad, truck art has become something of a cultural symbol. It’s loud, hard-to-miss and one of the few things we can genuinely claim as ‘ours.’ It’s not Indian, Central Asian, Middle Eastern or even part of the Bush-era coined ‘Greater Middle East.’ It’s simply Pakistani.
Every travel book to the country has a mandatory image of one. Granta used a truck art painting by Islam Gull for the cover of their special Pakistan issue in 2010. Last year, the Istanbul public transit system unveiled a bus decorated by a Pakistani artist. Egypt, New Zealand and Australia also have Pakistani-styled buses or trams on their streets.
Increasingly, local artists, fashion and interior designers are using truck art as a form of cultural expression or a slick marketing tool.
Clothing, accessories, bed linen, stationery, books, crockery, cutlery and wall paintings — truck art has made its mark everywhere. And most of all in that field which initiates all trends: fashion. Whether it’s Leisure Club’s colourful belts, mass produced Khaadi kurtas or couture wear by Fahad Hussayn and Deepak Perwani, there’s no denying that desi designers are looking homewards for inspiration.
So, other than purely aesthetics, what exactly is the appeal in these psychedelic juggernauts on wheels? Why are we suddenly seeing the presence of truck art everywhere?
In a blog post titled ‘Why is Truck Art Cool?’ Ahmer Naqvi wrote: “It’s cool because it is an extension of folk art and Islamic architecture, fused on a canvas which is at once immediate, ubiquitous and forever fleeting. It is cool perhaps because it exists as a testament to aesthetics, juxtaposed within the context and on the body of the very cogs which keep capitalism’s machinery rolling. It’s cool because it exists as a manifestation of the joie-de-vivre, the much-maligned-mercurialism that we Pakistanis seem to create as a reaction to the perpetual instability and uncertainty that defines our experience. But to most of us, it’s cool because some cool people said so.”
Newsline speaks to some of those cool people.
From the Road to the Ramp
In 2005, Maheen Khan was at home celebrating the 32nd anniversary of her label ‘Maheen,’ when she was struck by an idea: “I had always loved the impulsive creativity and wild colour of truck art in Pakistan, and decided to decorate my faithful, battered old car in the image of one. My family shot down the idea, but the seed had been sown!”
And so, Gulabo blossomed. Born of Khan’s “love for Pakistan and all things Pakistani — the colour, the spicy food, the romance, the poetry and the love of life in the streets,” the label was in many ways a departure from the kind of clothing she was previously known for. Khan was perhaps the first designer to make use of truck art imagery and symbols — with T-shirts that had graffiti such as ‘Pappu Yaar Tang Na Kar’ emblazoned on them. Bold, often deliberately kitschy but completely unapologetic about it, Gulabo developed an identity of its own.
“The name alone took me three weeks of asking my staff and factory workers for suggestions. I even asked a rickshaw driver. We short-listed 10 names and believe me, they were all hilarious. The final vote was taken by my tailoring team and Gulabo won the day. We launched on the street outside the shop, with four thelas carrying Pakola, chai, katchories and gola ganda, and fed anyone and everyone passing by. It was a celebration.”
There has been no looking back since.
“It’s been a joyful journey,” says the fashion veteran. “I started Gulabo on an impulse and as the years rolled by, began to give it more attention. Our clientele is diverse and includes overseas Pakistanis and women looking for a well-styled wardrobe with an edge. We’re a high street fashion brand, with the red rose as our symbol, truck art as our inspiration and a ‘proud to be Pakistani’ ideology.”
Had other countries around the world not picked up on truck art and not made much of it, would most Pakistanis have even noticed it or taken ownership of its own?
“Of course, they would,” says Khan. “You must remember that until 2007, the world was largely unaware of it. The interest had just set in with the first Pakistani truck to be exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington.”
Another designer garnering attention and accolades for his truck art-inspired collection is Rizwan Beyg, whose design philosophy has always been: ‘Think local, aim global.’ Despite being one of the few Pakistani fashion designers to have his sights set on the international market — his most famous client being the late Princess Di — Beyg has always remained true to his roots, with his collections having a distinctive ‘ethnic’ look. The veteran may not showcase as often as other designers, but after 25 years in the business, he seems comfortable in his space in the industry, and is not afraid of pushing the envelope and springing a surprise after a long hiatus —sort of like what he did with his Rang collection last year.
“The inspiration for this collection came to me when I was stuck behind a truck on the motorway. I couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship that I was witnessing before me,” he says. Thigh-high boots with hand-painted depictions of flora and fauna, leather jackets and skirts with metallic embellishments, stickers and chamak patti — the collection was as close as one could get to literally transporting the detailed craftsmanship of a truck onto clothing.
At its first-ever showing at the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) fashion show, local artisans from Jamshoro and Hyderabad, with whom Beyg had worked in creating this line, were there to witness it themselves. “It was great. They were intrigued and inspired when they saw that their work could be used in so many different ways.” Since TDAP, the designer has switched from hand painted to digital prints as the former, though stunning to look at, were not durable. “I’m looking into a more durable prÃªt line that is funky, trendy and affordable,” he says.
At its PFDC showing, The Telegraph’s Hilary Alexander declared Beyg’s collection the highlight of the evening. It has also been featured in Vogue and showcased in Sri Lanka. Now, the designer is all set to present his creations at India’s Lakme Fashion Week in August and in South Africa in September.
It’s popularity aside, is the use of truck art by designers simply a passing fad or is it here to stay?
“At Gulabo, truck art is an inspiration that will always stay. How we reflect it in our styles, will depend on the current trends,” says Khan. Beyg adds, “It’s indigenous and I don’t want to view it as a fad — but, yes, there may come a time when its possibilities are completely exhausted. That would be the time to move onto to different things. But for now, I’m thinking of opening a store, an individual brand, in which I work with the colours and motifs of truck art on household and other items.”
Home and the World
Stepping away from the world of fashion, entrepreneur Anjum Rana has been doing something similar to what Beyg has been wanting to do for well over a decade. She has mainstreamed truck art and introduced it to a global audience. In 2008, UNESCO awarded her the Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts.
Launched in 2000, her Tribal Truck Art was intended to be more for philanthropic than business purposes. Rana wanted to help out an elderly Pashtun painter, whose family member required medical attention, and he did not have the funds to pay for it. “I asked him to paint a trunk for me. The first client who walked into my house loved it so much that he placed an order for a few more. From there, it just grew into a business.”
She mentions that many truck artists, looking for an alternative source of income — given Karachi’s unpredictable political environment which affects transport — come to her looking for employment. “They work from home and earn more than what they do on a truck. I have five permanent employees and the rest work on a contract basis. Whenever I travel, I try to take different artists with me, so everyone gets some exposure,” she says.
She holds regular exhibitions abroad and couriers orders she receives from clients all over the world on her website (tribaltruckart.net). In Pakistan, Tribal Truck Art products are also available at the Nomad Gallery in Islamabad. “My latest items are porcelain crockery and I’m now coming up with a range of tiles for swimming pools and patios as well,” Rana adds.
Rana has been met with an enthusiastic response wherever she has showcased, but she finds India “an excellent market.” She also mentions Jordan, where the royal family gave her their personal furniture to revamp. “Lebanon was also great, as was Glasgow, where we painted for a British film, and Sante Fe, New Mexico, where the largest folk art market is held annually.”
Why does truck art hold an international appeal?
“It’s unique. There are several countries where they paint trucks, but no one does it quite like us.”
This year, Rana will be exhibiting in Indonesia (“Jakarta is going to have a huge show, for two weeks”), India and the UAE, where she also has workshops lined up in various schools.
Artists often take imagery from their surroundings and incorporate them into their works, to explore certain emotions, notions of identity or simply to celebrate what is beautiful and worthy of celebration. Truck art motifs, too, made their way onto the canvas. Miniaturist Muhammad Zeeshan used the half-woman, half-horse figure of Buraq, that decorates the backs of trucks and buses in Pakistan, in his Safarnama exhibition this year.
Nahid Raza is another artist who used Buraq in her partially truck-art inspired works. Known for her feminist themes and feminine sensibility, Raza mostly paints women, and “Buraq, too, is a woman — beautiful and bejewelled. I have thought about this often, and realised that God Himself chose a woman to be Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s carrier to the heavens,” says the artist.
Other motifs she chose from the truck art palette were ornamental flowers and peacocks. “I used to live in Defence and my relatives lived in Gulshan. So I would visit them in the evenings and return home late at night. Often, I would see these majestic trucks on the road. Because of the chamak-patti used in the pictures painted on the trucks, its various components would radiate in the dark. It was the sculptural quality of the work that really inspired me.”
Raza is delighted that truck art is making waves, both nationally and internationally. “Truck artists usually have zero education, and yet they create works of art from what they see in their surroundings, in their villages, with such skill. Even the embroidery that women do on cushions is incorporated by them into the trucks.”
“Truck art is one more aspect of our culture — and a very rich one at that. We rarely give importance to the indigenous, but I’m glad to see all that has changed now.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.