Till a few years ago, trucks to most Pakistanis were a nuisance, and often, death on wheels. Over the last decade though, one began to view them as ‘art on wheels’. This metamorphosis began in 2001 when the Sheraton Hotel hunted the now famous truck artist Haider Ali and commissioned him to paint a truck for them to be placed inside their hotel for an exhibition.
From that moment on, fate was sealed as Dr Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Professor at University of Wisconsin — who had researched on trucks in Pakistan for the last 25 years — picked up on Ali, inviting him to talk about the art in greater detail. Research claims that the culture of painting on trucks started in Japan and Myanmar while some influences were noticed in the Philippines as well. Yet, Ali, whose family has been in this business for the last 60 years, claims, “We [Pakistanis] have perfected this skill and it is the only art form in the subcontinent which is so unique to us.” Ali, who owns a workshop in Garden East and Maripur, has so far travelled to the US, England, Turkey and India to project his art.
Unlike other works of art like handicrafts, truck art has no dedicated market place where it can be easily purchased from. “Our people still call it cheap,” laments Ali. “That’s why there are no shops yet for truck art even though so many fashion designers have picked up on the concept and the t-shirt brand Uth Oye! popularised it even more so,” he adds. As a tribute to the founder of Uth Oye!, Babar Rashid Khan, Ali has even painted the brand’s name on the Volkswagen that he painted in Luton, England.
But what bothers him is that no local art school considers this genre worthy enough to be included in their curriculum as a proper subject. “None of the local art institutes such as Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture or National College of Arts pay heed to this,” laments Ali. Hence Ali has taken the initiative of teaching truck art at his own workshop, a through a formal course which will be spread over a period of four years.
And while the public perception of the art may be that it is ‘garish’ and ‘cheap’, the decoration of these trucks is no small investment. Each truck costs approximately Rs1 million to be painted and three to four days of hard work. “The truck owners themselves say that they can easily buy another truck in the amount they spend on one truck to decorate it,” reveals Sher, Ali’s younger brother who manages the workshops. “But then it’s also a matter of pride for these truck owners and a competition between them as to who has the most beautiful truck on the roads,” adds Sher.
Although locals came to value this art much later, foreigners have always been fascinated by truck art. Even today, interest in the art hasn’t died down and he recently trained a group of 12 foreigners.
When asked if there is a thought process or ideology behind the images painted, Sher replies, “Sometimes a truck driver will ask us to paint a slogan that they like or lyrics from songs of Ataullah Esa Khelvi or images of Bollywood actor Mamta Kulkarni that they may have picked up from posters floating around. But usually there is no story per se to the truck art motifs that are typically taken from the truck owner’s village” explains Sher.
Although, truck art is not restricted to any particular ethnicity or province as it is being done by artists from all over Pakistan, works coming from different regions differ in their designs, colours etcetera. While explaining how one can distinguish the trucks belonging to different areas of the country, Ali states, “The ones from Karachi and Pindi are the most colourful, employing the use of mirror work along with metal embellishments, while the ones from Peshawar are mostly in solid colour blocks and the ones from Dera Ghazi Khan have less paint and more plastic trimmings.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2012.