ICH in Public Transport: Truck Art in Pakistan

Truck art ⓒ B.B.P. Hosmillo

Listed on the UNESCO Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, the Oselvar boat was resurrected from near-extinction when the Os Båtbyggjarlag Boat-Builders Guild, Os municipality, and Hordaland County founded the non-profit boatyard and workshop foundation Oselvarverkstaden in 1997 with the support of the Arts Council Norway. The Oselvar boat used to be western Norway’s main mode of transportation and, as predominantly known, it is a Norwegian cultural icon that symbolizes the kingdom’s leisure craft. On the other hand, Costa Rica’s carreta or traditional oxcart is the Central American country’s most famous craft. Inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 (though originally proclaimed in 2005), the traditional oxcart used to transport coffee beans in a ten-to-fifteen-day journey, from Costa Rica’s central valley over the mountains to Puntaneras on the Pacific coast. As a mode of transport, it lingers on a mobility that is built around agriculture, transcending a cultural aesthetics informed by rural imaginary. The presence alone of carreta is an explicit call to end deforestation and be much more mindful about climate change. The Oselvar boat of Norway and Costa Rica’s traditional oxcart are two living examples of the creative union between transportation and craft so that we may see public transportation as a cultural understanding of intangible heritage.

The South Asian nation of Pakistan, with its twenty-six national highways and three strategic highways, does not shy away from parading the abundance and importance of ICH in public roads. Pakistan’s truck art, the largest art industry in the country, is a living construction of identity by making visible a host of cultural signifiers, from religious piety to popular imagination. Albeit there is no economic benefit from decorating a truck, and even though such undertaking costs at least a whooping USD 2000 back in 2011, it has been the norm, according to Jamal J. Elias, for fleet owners to have their trucks decorated. Since 96% of the freight in Pakistan is carried by trucks, one can easily imagine the widespread presence of truck art. Focusing on the art in the craft of vehicular decoration, as well as on pleasure, protection, and suffering experienced by truck drivers, Anna Schmid contends that truck art is a form of popular culture in which central societal assumptions and values are contested in that truck art, by the very process of putting it in the public sphere, puts social mobility in a terrain bounded by semiotics or the study of signs and how these signs meaningfully interact with each other in religious, political, and cultural terms. Schmid draws truck construction by highlighting the specialized craftsmen principally responsible for it: blacksmiths (who attach a steel skeleton to the chassis to hold the body and the driver’s cabin), the body makers (who create the body composed of wooden pine slats held together by metal and wooden cross-pieces), lacquerers (who spray paint the body), upholsterers (who install the seat of the cabin), and the painters (who apply motifs and other necessary decorations).

Unsuspecting the ethnic diversity of Pakistani society, on the basis of categorical decorative motifs such as explicit religious symbols and images, talismanic and fetish objects, talismanically or religiously loaded symbols, idealized elements of life, elements from modern life, the non-religious calligraphic program of the truck, Jamal J. Elias, a scholar who thoroughly examined the typologies and evolution of truck art and proposed five regional styles of truck art: Punjabi, Swati, Peshawar, Baluchi, and Karachi styles.

Truck art is an exemplary case to theorize that the process of understanding ICH is a public work, a work that compels mediation and collective valuation. Something that transforms personal sentiments into public feelings. And what’s more interesting about the truck art of Pakistan, other than it being an industry of its own, is its direct connection to transportation—that a vessel practically meant to transport a commodity from one place to another actually carries something more than what it does, and it does beyond time and place, connecting cities and regions that ultimately become unknowable large-scale social processes. Indeed, when a symbol travels, its meaning exponentially multiplies.