Truck art: Pakistan’s highways to the world

Students from around the world travel to the country to study the vibrant designs

Kashif Hussain December 05, 2018
Truck art has taken on a new meaning as artists have started using their skills to decorate various items. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: Over the last few decades, Pakistani truck art - hand-painted floral patterns, poetry and even caricatures of popular personalities on long-haul trucks, buses and rickshaws - has grown increasingly popular in the West.

In its birthplace, however, the art has only recently seen mild interest among art lovers. For years, trucks adorned with glossy floral patterns, caricatures and even life lessons in the form of poetry have traversed the highways up and down the country. Of late, passenger buses and rickshaws running in urban centres too have taken to the art form. Besides, artists have now started applying the genre on a variety of products such as handbags, shoes, decoration pieces and furniture.

The vehicles, many of which are art galleries on wheels, are decorated with wood carvings and hand-painted designs. Much has been written about the intricate carvings and attention to detail given by the artisans. What is little explored are the origins of the craft. From what little is known, the idea sprang from auto workshops and tea stalls frequented by truck drivers.

The costs

A single truck is completely decorated and assembled at a cost of Rs150,000 to Rs200,000. The process involves levelling of surface of the body, painting, woodwork and finally the truck art.

A single truck project provides earnings to about 20-25 workers. It takes about two to three weeks to make the figures and drawings. The payments for the job are based on how complex or fine the client wants the design to be. Generally, a painter is paid a daily wage of Rs1,500 while his helper gets between Rs300-400.

Those wanting a more literary touch also engrave beautiful poetry on their trucks. The verses often represent the feelings and emotions of the truck drivers. Drawings of beautiful mountains of Pakistan are commonly depicted in truck art. Some owners also get portraits of personalities engraved on their trucks while others prefer drawings of horses, lions or beautiful birds such as peacocks.

A large part of woodwork is done by hands. Specialised workers engrave drawings of flowers and plants inside and outside the truck cabin including the front and on the tyre sides. The job is done entirely by hand without any machinery involved.

Around the world

Having made a name for himself and for his country in all corners of the world, painter Haider Ali teaches the art of painting trucks in a garage located in Old Golimar for the past three decades. Ali, soft-spoken and generous be nature, is a true patron of the art and wants to encourage budding artists to take up the genre and ensure its survival.

Ali's patterns and paintings have been displayed in art museums all over the world. His students are based across the world as he has exhibited his work in more than 40 states of the United States (US), Canada, Brazil, Germany, France, Bulgaria, India and many other European countries. He has also been invited to art universities for lectures and to train young artists.

Many of his students have travelled to Pakistan for an opportunity to paint patterns on trucks. He also gives them souvenir number plates with handmade truck art designs, with their names inscribed on them.

Claim to fame

Ali got his first break in 2002, when he was invited by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC to exhibit his artwork. He made quite the impression and invitations from other countries started pouring in almost immediately after.

Today, a group of American women are getting training under Ali in Karachi. Instead of charging his foreign students, he asks them to travel to Pakistan and convey a positive image of the country on their return. What saddens Ali, however, is that in the West, truck art is considered a unique genre, while in Pakistan it has only started receiving recognition after the international attention. Ali aims to build an art academy to transfer this art to the next generation. According to him, currently the art universities talk about truck art but its technicalities and expertise are still limited to truck mending points, which is why a specific academy for truck art is necessary where truck art painters can preserve the genre.

Commercial art

Truck art has now earned the status of commercial art. However, its buyers are only restricted to the affluent class. Shahzad Hussain, a skilled artist in Karachi, has been introducing innovative designs to promote truck art.  Hussain works in his workshop from dawn to dusk, located at the handicraft market in Saddar, and paints truck art designs on a variety of products.

According to Hussain, it is imperative upon truck artists to understand the taste of their clients. He also strictly condemns selling this skill at cheap rates. "If handmade paintings are sold at such high rates, then why not truck art?" he questions. Hussain proved his mettle and hold of the skill in a very short time. Things made by Hussain adorn the drawing rooms of high-income households.

In addition, tourists coming to Zainab Market also buy his handmade crafts for their homes. He paints both large and small-sized models of buses, trucks and rickshaws, which are taken by tourists as souvenirs. Hussain also paints suitcases, wooden cases, lanterns and various forms of furniture with these vibrant colour designs. "It is difficult to maintain focus while painting special Multani slippers called Khussas and Kheris. These slippers, meant for women, are in great demand in markets of posh areas," he said.

Hussain has painted furniture in various homes and hotels of different cities. These days, he is painting furniture at a Pakistani restaurant recently opened in the US. Hussain learned this craft from Ali and took it further in a unique way.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2018.


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