exhibitions: truck art

The Foreign Office's advice to travellers was to avoid Karachi if possible owing to the recent spate of violence, but I was on a mission to track down a leopard-skin truck.

Truck art, as anyone who knows Pakistan will tell you, is one of the great folk arts of the sub-continent. These monsters of the road, covered in garish, outlandish colours and fairy lights, have a talismanic function of warding off evil spirits, and promoting good luck - something you need plenty of when navigating Pakistan's roads. Naimat Khan is a typical trucker, admitting that he spends more on decorating his truck than he paid for his second wife a couple of years ago. "I spend most of my time in my truck. It's like a second home to me," says Naimat.

Traditionally, the trucks are painted with landscapes of mountains, waterfalls, flowers and animals, and adorned with wood-carvings and mirrors. These days images may include fighter jets or film beauties. There's also a whole sub-culture that accompanies truck life, emanating from the legendary graffiti artist Kafeel Bhai who lives by a petrol station and has added his messages to thousands of trucks, to the strains of truckers' music such as the lamentations of the Seraiki singer Atullah Niazi.

The rumoured leopard-skin truck turned out to be a project by the Karachi School of Art, organised by sculptress Durriya Kazi. Customising their own truck and driving it around Pakistan was an inspired way of getting away from the commercial, rarefied world of Pakistan's art galleries, and a way of recognising the dynamism of Pakistani folk art. They managed to score some sponsorship from Pakistani State Oil, in return for some images of the company's petrol stations, and decorated an old Bedford heavy-goods truck.

While the front is decked out in gloriously playful painted leopard skin (Man Ray would have loved it) complete with sculptures of cubs playing on the fender, other images are darker, reflecting the violence of Karachi which is, according to Durriya Kazi "the unwanted tapestry of their lives. Many of the images on the truck are a strong protest against this lifestyle. Primarily it is the voice of optimism, of youth, of the faith that there is no step too small to bring a better future."

Many of the panels express the pressures and choices faced by young people in Karachi, the difficulties of avoiding being caught up in the sub-culture of drugs, violence and corruption. They even got the relentless graffiti maestro Kafeel Bhai to add his touch.

The truck, dubbed the Art Caravan, provoked discussion wherever it went. "In Peshawar, young tribals felt great empathy with the call to bring to an end a weapon-dominated world," says Durriya Kazi.

The large back panel of the truck is a powerful call for peace in the form of a broken hand grenade from which a seed is sprouting. This panel has been flown to the UK and can be seen at London's October Gallery as part of the Pakistan Music Village currently in the capital after storming the Bradford Mela last weekend. There's also a room of traditional truck art on display, painted by artist Yousuf and his brothers who have been decorating trucks for 30 years.

This week and next the whole of the October Gallery is turning into a mini-Pakistan with lunchtime and evening concerts and midday talks on Pakistan culture. In the gallery courtyard there's an impressive installation of an Islamic star balanced in the courtyard by Ali Zaidi, seemingly a symbol of modern Pakistan, precariously balanced but capable of great creativity and beauty.

Contemporary Art from Pakistan, October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street WC1 (0171-242 7367) to 29 Jul as part of Pakistan Music Village. Durriya Kazi is speaking at the October Gallery today, 12.15pm. Music Village Hotline: 0171-247 8822

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