Truck art

13th October 2000 at 01:00
(Photograph) - It was more spray-can protest than art that turned the monochrome carriages of the New York subway into today's psychedelic subterranean rattling snakes. In London, commercial opportunism continues to turn black cabs and red buses into a kind of Oxford Street art, promoting everything from jeans to Jersey.

But it is the creative spirit in much purer form that turns the trucks and lorries of south Asia - and of Pakistan in particular - into the transport world's most vibrant and colourful expression of art on wheels.

Along the Great Trunk Road that joins Peshawar, in the north-west, to Karachi, the country's commercial capital in the south, hurtle these transports of delight, filling the grey days of monsoon with splashes of washy colour, shimmering through the haze of desert dust like giant works of vagrant impressionists.

Behind their glitzy exteriors they carry the nation's needs - everything from sacks of rice to bags of fertiliser, from steel to sandals and silk for the finest saris. And they often carry people too, perched precariously on top. They are invariably overladen and driven recklessly, and spew out appalling levels of pollution. But they are the life-blood of the nation, home for months on end for their drivers, and a never-ending roadshow of moving pictures.

Truck art took off in the Sixties as Pakistan's economy stabilised under the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan. Ford truck chassis were being imported from the United States. Local labour added the wooden bodies. And in keeping with the country's love of bright colours, rivalry developed in the paint shops to produce the most colourful lorries.

Nature provided inspiration for early motifs. Today, subjects include architecture, work, religion, family life and even politics. The Taj Mahal (featuredon this truck in Karachi carrying newsprint) is always popular, as is the Badshahi mosque in Lahore, seen by many as the symbol and pride of Pakistan.

The moon, an important Islamic symbol, finds its way into many of the designs, as do lamps and candles - the Koran uses the imagery of light to represent God. General Khan is not forgotten - his portrait is often seen on the back of trucks.

With no formal training, skilled artists in the paint shops of Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Peshawar attract thousands of pounds worth of business from haulage operators and owner-drivers alike.The work of a top-ranking paint shop such as the Badami Bagh (almond garden) in Lahore bestows considerable prestige on the lorry owners, who compete to commission the most original designs. A series of landscapes illustrating regions covered by their firms' routes is one recent theme.

Many of the haulage companies are owned by Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation of the Eighties, crossing into Pakistan with their large Mercedes trucks. With their greater capacity, they could undercut the local competition, who were still using the smaller Ford trucks.

Afghan ownership is reflected in the common use of birds and flowers in the artists' work. Caged birds are a popular feature of life in Afghanistan, especially among the wealthier families in Kabul. And flowers are a common theme in Afghan poetry - associated with the blood of those who died for their loved ones or beliefs.

Islamic art: www.islamicart.com

National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire: www.beaulieu.co.uk

Friends of the Earth atmosphere and transport campaign: www.foe.co.ukcampaigns atmosphere_and_transportrtb

Victoria and Albert Museum (needs Flash plug-in): www.vam.ac.uk

Robin Laurance. Photograph by Robin Laurence


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