Truck Art is a vibrant and elaborate decorative component of everyday life in Pakistan and an art form that is a result of the interpersonal relationship that happens between the driver and the calligrapher. The trucks transport various goods across the country, and for me, these trucks have been a part of my childhood as a trademark of my culture. The art form originally started in Afghanistan and found its way into Pakistan. The images and prayers on the truck expresses a driver’s personal relationship with God, becoming a self-identifier of vernacular Sunnism. It also serves as the driver’s prideful emblem at truck stops. From religious and nonsensical calligraphy to pictorial images from popular culture, or hybrids of exotic animals and places, the truck is also a physical extension of the driver’s personality communicated through colorful images and calligraphy. The Better Homes & Gardens class had me curious about what vernacular art environments look like within my own culture. I set out to learn more about truck art and discovered a great deal about its functionality both in terms of an extension of a driver’s identity and as a badge of Pakistani folk artistry that has found its way into other channels.
There is no truck that is alike and each one is derived from its own inspiration through an exchange of a creative process that happens between the driver and artist. Once the body of the truck is assembled, it then becomes a blank canvas for the artist, allowing him to transpire a distinct design through color and calligraphy. Due to a booming economy and demand for truck drivers, this profession became an opportunity for the illiterate to make a profitable living. Drivers commission calligraphers to ornate the truck because basic lettering skills are required since the truck is obligated to have the name and address of the company that owns it. The pictorial images stemmed out of writing when the calligraphers experimented and innovated an artistic medium that displayed the newly founded success and wealth for the driver, making the calligrapher an artist. This practice then became a trade that was passed down from father to son and has remained that way even till today.
Other religious calligraphy appears on the front of the truck, while the back has humorous puns. The front of the truck carries heavy religious sayings as the front represents the hopeful future ahead, or one’s face to the world. Images and writing are both formal here and showcase religious signs and symbols. The back never exhibits religious writing due to the fact that workers use it as a stepping stool to load the cargo. The top half off the back contains imagines and portraits from popular culture, while the bottom half is where the humorous writing occurs as it represents, “the butt of the joke."
The sides of the truck are where most of the landscape and pictorial images are created and where the creative iconography takes shape in panels of the truck’s natural construction, reminiscing the panel like paintings from Mughal architecture. The images include geographical landscapes, famous buildings, imagined individuals, and animals or people in these idealized landscapes. Themes of implacement, literal or signified, are hidden in images of the idealized inhabited or uninhabited spaces. Each panel has a painted frame that contains geometric design, mostly consisting of zig zags and triangles, and a painting of paintings within frames appears cohesive. Construction of each truck displays an awareness of color, form, and design through continuous patterns, geometric shapes, and symmetrical compositions. The driver becomes a traveler and the truck becomes his vessel that possess the power to take him to places he desires to see or the landscapes that he believes exist in reality somewhere in a world unreachable to him.
Symbolism and themes narrate stories, ideas, and concepts of vernacular religion that does not keep in tradition with orthodox Islam. Rather, it is a personal interpretation of Sunni Islam that is adorned and displayed on a mobile vehicle that moves through a social, and visible space. The landscape becomes a medium for a message and an effort to spread hope of redemption. Truck art also began among the poor and illiterate people, speaking in a grassroot language to connect to its audience.
Spending many long days and nights traveling, the truck becomes the home of the driver, it is his most prized possession that brings his livelihood. So not only is the outside embellished, but the inside of the truck is even more elaborate. The deep spirituality that is expressed outwardly on the truck is intensified inside but is kept private to the outside world the truck passes through. The concept of “home” becomes multifaceted as the truck emerges through everyday life in Pakistan and is transformed through ornaments and a burst of colorful paint as a celebration of the driver himself.
The truck art style has transformed over years and has found its way into high fashion and mass produced products, but its authenticity lies in the grassroot artists who took it upon themselves to create a movement that has now begun to define Pakistani identity. However, it can only truly be appreciated by the community it sprouted from since they have access to personal contact with the truck is parked at truck stops. Jamal J. Elias mentions in Truck Decoration and Religious Identity: Material Culture and Social Function in Pakistan, that the decoration and ornamentation of the truck can only be fully appreciated when the truck is stationary and its high admiration comes first from the people in the truck culture. This got me thinking about the fact that I’ve never interacted with these trucks up close and personal and what this vehicle would do for a space when it is static. How would it activate the space and for who?
The Aura of Alif: The Art of Writing Islam. Editor: Jurgen Wasim Frembgen
Bedford Painting in Pakistan: The Aesthetics and Organizations of an Artisan Trade. By George W. Rich and Shahid Khan
Truck Decoration and Religious Identity: Material Culture and Social Function in Pakistan. By Jamal J. Elias