Desi by designArchive
In a sea of traumatic, angst peppered art that continues to haunt the Pakistani artscape, a cheery burst of colour and a generous dollop of desi pop in “Of the Road — A Truck Art Exhibition” at the IVS Gallery, Karachi, reminded viewers of art’s capacity to simply amuse and entertain. Primitive, populist and so Pakistani, truck art is a homespun craft whose artistic potential as a contemporary fine art idiom has yet to be explored seriously. Of late, it has evolved commercially and its adaptations, in street fashion wear, home décor products, exotic souvenir items, painted ethnic furniture and interiors / exteriors of public spaces illustrate its wide ‘pop ‘appeal.
Within the artist community other than the late Laila Shahzada who highlighted this visual aesthetic and its makers in the ’60s and in the recent past modernist Nahid Reza’s use of its folk motifs especially the ‘buraq’ symbol and chamak patti art in her “Love, Friendship and Happiness” series, no major artist has attempted to deconstruct, reinvent or appropriate truck art with earnest intent or purpose.
The current exhibition comprising works of IVSSA Foundation programme students along with the paintings of their teacher Master Haider Ali and his assistants Mumtaz Bhai and Gul Rez is the first endeavour by a degree awarding art school to introduce a large body of students to the intricacies of truck art as a medium of personal expression.
Formerly in 1994, a Karachi School of Art project, undertaken in collaboration with PSO, centred on truck decoration — the painted vehicle then toured the major cities of Pakistan as a mobile gallery. The IVS exercise, a week-long venture, is part of the IVS Foundation Programme’s design to heighten perceptions, build awareness and sensitivity to the socio-cultural environment, and inculcate a sense of responsibility towards constructive and innovative change in the fields of art design and architecture.
Expectations from students who are artists in the making regarding skills and concepts, should not be high. Possessing the raw energy characteristic of truck art the works on show were very basic and upfront. An enthusiastic engagement with the art / craft was evident in the students’ brash almost gleeful stroke play in bold vibrant colours and a profusion of decorative motifs, border patterns and ornamental accessories. They made clever re-use of rudimentary but comic and witty truck driver poetry and the traditional art of chamak patti and beaten silver steel cutwork decoration. Using a typical vocabulary of animal images like the eagle, lion, peacock, parrot and doves, mythical landscapes, brassy female portraiture, kohl lined eyes and lucky charms they opted for trite as well as personalised expressions.
Some compositions featuring Iqbal’s Shaheen throbbed with patriotic fervour but it was mock illustrations of selfhood where fun and innovation was most apparent. Instead of ‘filmi’ heroines cameos of modern girly images prepped with cheeky poetic musings gave an urban hue to this otherwise heavily folkloric aesthetic.
Among some standout paintings one featured a female figure traipsing to the mantra ‘Man ki aankh kholo’ in a fusion of truck art vocabulary and psychedelic art while Frida Kahlo’s image, in a mix of Mexican and Pakistani folk art touted, ‘Paon ki kiya zaroorat jab par hain urney ki liye’. A parent’s 22nd wedding anniversary portrait painted in typical truck art lingo was innovative too.
Finding close parallels in indigenous truck and Western pop, fantasy and psychedelic art enabled students to experiment and explore new possibilities. This investigative space can be further broadened with studies of Naïve and Fauve art which also centre on bold chromatics, exuberant brushwork and primitive pattern. Referencing Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami is a moot point but in the postmodern art world these internationally-renowned artists sell pieces of visual art worth millions of dollars. Both deal in the realm of kitsch, or pop art, which utilise aesthetics of the low standards and coarsened tastes of banal, everyday life and pop culture.
The fact that an indigenous art is still practised here and is available for deconstruction and adaptation owes much to the tenacity and passion of its practitioners. Originally categorised as artisans or craftspersons sharing cultural space with cinema and billboard painters these unlettered artists belong to the traditional ustad-shahgird tutelage system. In the art community they are still caught between the high art-low craft divide but have evolved considerably within their personal capacity and some now manage successful business concerns.
The team Phool Patti, conducting the IVS Project, is an independent social enterprise company, working to promote Pakistani Truck Art around the world. Having worked on several prestigious assignments they are currently busy ‘Reimaging the Walls of Karachi Airport ‘for the I Am Karachi Project.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015
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