Art on wheels: Celebrating the creativity of Pakistani trucks

November 18, 2014

ANN ARBOR—At a time when much of the news about Pakistan seems to involve drone attacks, bombings and jihadist groups, a University of Michigan professor is trying to change the conversation to the vibrant art and culture scene that exists in Pakistan.

Osman Khan is doing it by decorating a truck—Pakistani style. The vehicle is covered with a collage of floral patterns and pictures of Pakistani leaders, poets and activists such as Malala Yousafzai, the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“Growing up, I saw truck art whenever I visited Pakistan,” said Khan, assistant professor at U-M’s School of Art and Design. “The truck grew out of another project I was working on about loss of cultural monuments to diaspora.”

The back of Khan’s vehicle is ornately decorated with buraq, a creature with wings which according to legend travelled with prophets to heaven. The front of the truck will soon be decorated with calligraphy, ornamental shapes and patterns in shiny metallic and colored foil.

Truck art is found in regions of South America and South Asia, but few are as elaborate as the moving canvasses that rumble down the roads of Pakistan, hauling bags of sugar, lumber and other cargo.

By making this Pakistani truck in the U.S., Khan is critiquing and celebrating the Pakistani art truck culture. Instead of traditional painting on the truck, he used painted vinyl strips. He wants to introduce the tradition in the U.S. and hopes that using vinyl strips, much like stickers, will provide a viable method to showcase this tradition in cities across the country.

He also said that he decided to not import a Pakistani truck like the Smithsonian did for an exhibition a few years ago because he wants it to be replicated and used in the U.S.

“It would be great to see another decorated truck on the road,” he said.

Khan wants to make a decorated truck part of the visual landscape as it crisscrosses through all the states. Last year, Khan traveled to more than 18 states as he took the vehicle to Los Angeles for his exhibition, “All the Rage.”

“This is another way to celebrate art from Pakistan that I didn’t see growing up in the U.S.,” said Khan, adding that highly decorated trucks in Pakistan are part advertising, part good luck talisman and part self-expression as each region has developed specialized decorations.

While driving from New York to Los Angeles, Khan said he attracted a lot of attention. Several people knocked on his window and asked if he was part of a carnival.

The truck is part of his new work called “The Road to Hybridabad” (a pun on the name of Pakistani city Hyderabad). Khan calls it aesthetic provocation to address Western cultural and visual control in the global landscape. He is challenging it one truck at a time.

Over the winter, Khan plans to work on the front of the truck, or taj as it is called in Pakistan, and also equip the truck to handle events. In January 2015, Khan and his truck will take part in an exhibition in Windsor, Ontario, on “Border Cultures.” He plans to take it to Brooklyn, N.Y., next summer and park it in a public space to see people’s reaction.

“I hope to do food nights, music nights on the truck and get people interacting with it,” he said.


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