The Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative

The Truck at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City | Photograph by Mark McDonald.
The Truck at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City | Photograph by Mark McDonald.
Photo of Lisa Pollman
16 March 2016

Back in 2010, Kansas City sculptor Asheer Akram travelled to Pakistan to participate in a residency programme and to meet relatives. During his stay, the artist was introduced to the elaborately decorated cargo trucks that ferry goods across the country. The journey inspired him to shine a light on his often negatively portrayed culture, and add contemporary Pakistani motifs to his artwork. Soon after, the Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative was born.

Asheer Akram and the Pakistani cargo truck | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Both an art installation and mobile classroom, the Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative is part of Akram’s bigger mission: through his art and public sculpture, he strives to create a dialogue about socio-cultural evolution and the effects of globalisation on developing nations. The truck is an American hybrid, built in the United States, using a dedicated team of artisans combining traditional Islamic and contemporary Pakistani motifs with American elements.

Lisa Pollman interviewed the artist to find out more about the impetus behind the project. The artist reveals to us his fascination for bringing obscure and overlooked aspects of culture to the public and repurposing them to bring respect, whilst fighting negative stereotypes.

The truck at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City | Photograph by Mark McDonald.

Tell us how this idea and project came about. Why do you think this project is important now in America?

In 2010, funded by the Linda Lighton Grant in partnership with the Kansas City Artist Coalition, I traveled to Pakistan. My father was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States when he was sixteen to continue his education to become an engineer. I had always been intrigued by my cultural heritage and when my father passed away in 2008, the need became more urgent. While in Pakistan, I met family members I had never met and experienced a world that had once been so familiar to my father. That is when I first encountered traditional Pakistani cargo trucks.

Upon returning, I struggled to convey the influence Pakistan had on my work. First, I began by making smaller pieces that resembled aspects of the Pakistani cargo trucks I had encountered. However, I hoped for something bigger. I wanted and want my work to have the power of social commentary with the potential to influence social change. Eventually, I decided to construct an American hybrid of the Pakistani cargo truck from the ground up.

I believe it is important that this project exist in America to help inform and enlighten people that do not have the opportunity to freely travel. The truck provides another perspective on Pakistan. It helps people explore a culture that is largely portrayed in a negative light by mass and social media. It’s my hope to get people curious enough to explore this culture in their own way. Hopefully the truck and the dialogue surrounding it will provide a context for people that the media has not often provided.

The front grill and bumper of the truck | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Was there symbolism behind purchasing a 1952 Chevy grain truck, a staple of Midwestern farming industry or was it simply the best model for the project? Where did you find it?

There were several reasons choosing the 1952 Chevy grain truck. We, however, did not use the chassis from 1952. We used the chassis off of a 1992 GMC Topkick, which is a twenty-four foot box truck. We stripped the chassis clean of all the old parts, cut seven feet off of the frame and hand-built everything from the ground up.

We chose the model for its lines, which are a close aesthetic match to the Bedfords used in Pakistan, and because it was a vehicle that was so commonly used in the area, therefore giving people a good way of starting to relate to the project. The Bedford cabs that became widely popular for decoration in Pakistan and are still the ideal canvas, were originally produced under the same company. These are all things we took into account while choosing the starting points for our project.

The cargo truck was fashioned from this 1952 Chevy grain truck | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Please tell me more about this phrase: ‘breeding a Pakistani tradition with an American aesthetic and concept to create a hybrid of culture and art’. Was this challenging? How?

There were many challenges associated with this task. One of our main goals while designing the truck was making sure we did not initially alienate our audience with a wild concept and nothing for them to relate to. Approaching this in a way that would be both conductive for creating a relationship with viewers and still coherent enough to be recognised as a Pakistani-style cargo truck proved to be quite challenging.

This was not only important for the audience, but also for me as an artist. My father is from Pakistan but I was raised in the United States. My ideas have been influenced by both cultures.

Asheer Akram and Kevin Fain work on the truck | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

How do you plan on using the truck for social and cultural enrichment activities? Any future plans for taking the truck on the road?

Our plan is to drive the truck coast to coast over the course of the next few years. We will visit cultural institutions, schools (K-5 through college), museums and religious institutions. We will first get people’s attention visually. We hope word of mouth, printed material, lectures and workshops, social and other media will help us reach the widest audience possible.

The truck takes to the streets at night | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Tell us about the artists and craftsmen who helped bring this project to fruition. Was it difficult finding the people you needed to make the necessary modifications and artwork for the vehicle?

We began the process of choosing artists based on quality of craftsmanship and their conceptual input. We hand-selected a group of about fifteen artists and the project narrowed the list itself. The final selection was based on who had shown interest in being involved, who could collaborate well with designers, other artists and skilled craftsmen, and – most telling – who could work under strenuous deadlines and in stressful scenarios. The craftsmen hired for different aspects of the project were chosen strictly on the basis of past performances. We only employed the best craftsmen for any given aspect that needed to be hired out. Most of the fabrication was completed by my employees, interns and myself.

Asheer Akram applies gold paint to the side panel | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Regarding the motifs found on the truck, are they something you’d find on a truck in Pakistan or are they strictly American themes, or a blend of both?

(To answer this question, Akram responded by breaking down the truck’s main components individually.)

Above the cab:

The large extension of the box above the cab is one of the most distinctive features of Pakistani cargo trucks. This unique feature identifies the mobile masterpieces of Pakistan setting them apart from similar decorative vehicle traditions in other cultures.

Our project was constructed to mimic the large brows found on the trucks in Pakistan, but it was also created to stay within the constraints of the regulations of state and national laws regarding height and weight restrictions. We made several aesthetic decisions that helped us emphasize the brow despite the vehicle limitations.

Akram and Fain put the finishing touches on the truck | Photograph by RIch Sugg.

The Doors:

The hand-carved wooden doors on our Pakistani cargo truck were made in collaboration with a local artist, Will Burnip. Our doors incorporate traditional Islamic design and Midwestern based imagery. The doors on our truck are one of the most labour-intensive decorative aspects. Normally, the doors are wooden and carry segmented design, such as abstract floral. We used the opportunity to incorporate wood as a way to further drive our original concept and incorporate more imagery that is distinctively derived from our region. The doors are comprised of animals and imagery of the Midwest and the design panels that sit directly behind the doors bear a little more narrative. One panel (driver’s side) is a depiction of scenes of the ever-evolving Missouri river, from indigenous Native American scenes to a more industrial Missouri river of today.

Detail of Will Burnip’s doors | Photograph by RIch Sugg.

The Sides:

The tradition of decorative motifs and designs of Pakistani trucks dates back thousands of years. Camel caravans were some of the first mobile canvases with these stylized designs. Similar designs can be seen in architecture, fiber arts and pottery. Through a variety of mediums, the imagery tells the native history of different cultural groups throughout Pakistan. The designs employed on the modern day masterpieces often narrate the driver’s heritage. Some say you can tell what region the driver comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to based on the decorations employed on their truck.

We took this idea and expanded it to fit a global outlook on the decoration. We have taken the base line of the Pakistani tradition and bred it with an American aesthetic and Midwestern motifs. We employed local imagery in the painting as well as abstract and traditional Pakistani designs to create a hybrid of art and cultures. Midwestern imagery can be found in the flowering dogwood trees and sunflowers painted on the side of the vehicle. Both flowers are indigenous to the Midwest and the dogwood tree is the state tree of Missouri. Further up the truck you will also find depictions of blue birds and local butterflies.

Zeke Henry attaches metal decorations to the side of the truck | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

The Back:

The backs of the trucks in Pakistan are one of the most visual parts of the truck because it is a focal point when the vehicles are traveling from destination to destination as viewers can’t spend much time viewing the sides or fronts of the trucks while in motion. This is where you will be likely to find paintings that are the most time consuming.

Trucks in modern-day Pakistan use images that can range from portraits of family members or famous pop stars all the way to favorite national and local landscapes or animals. We have formed this idea to fit a more local aesthetic. Our painting derives from Aesop’s fable the Fox and the Raven. It is a story about vanity and the importance of dignity. Local painter Mark Galloway has taken imagery from the fable and added many Native American twists to the subject.

Carved wooden doors by Will Burnip | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

Tell us more about the mobile sculpture and fine art laboratory in the back. What purpose does this laboratory have for artists or for the general public?

The sculpture and art lab in the truck will be equipped with state of the art machines as well as more traditional art-making tools. The truck will be furnished with welding equipment, CNC machines, a hand built printing press and various hand tools. This workshop will help us address audiences hands-on. We will be able to get people from all age groups involved in many of the processes used in creating and decorating the Pakistani Cargo Truck. We believe getting people involved in this manner will birth a more significant experience and connection with our project and create a better vehicle to deliver our overall concepts.

The Truck at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City | Photograph by Mark McDonald.

You’ve said in previous interviews that this truck was ‘carrying possibilities’. What did you mean by this phrase?

In Pakistan, these decorated trucks work in a sort of hierarchical fashion, ferrying mainly dry goods from one point to another. The basic idea being that the more decorated, ornate and well crafted the truck, the more likely it will be carrying more extravagant or expensive cargo. We took this concept and decided the most compatible cargo for our truck would be (literally) tools to help further our conceptual reach. From this idea we decided to install the mobile workshop.

Akram attaches artwork his sister Maya Densman created | Photograph by Rich Sugg.

What has been the reaction to the truck so far? How do children react to the vehicle? Adults?

I would say that the reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Though the truck has only made it to a few destinations, I believe its impact continues to grow through local, national and international press coverage. It’s fairly easy to gauge reactions from children and I believe this is the group that will be most susceptible to the ideas of influencing social change. It is truly a pleasure to watch children approach the truck with open imaginations and wide eyes, as well as to hear their verbal reactions!

I have found that the reactions of adults vary depending on their backgrounds, ethnicity and location while interacting with the truck. Almost everyone can relate to or admire one or more aspect of the truck. For some, it’s the Chevy cab. For others, it’s the decorations that adorn the entire truck and for [still] others, it’s the nostalgia of seeing a foreign but familiar sight in an unexpected atmosphere. We have found that the sight is very familiar for people from or who have been to Pakistan. Their reactions while breaking down similarities and differences between our version and the real Pakistani truck, are both insightful and informative. Most importantly, the project creates a dialog and gets people to question its significance while exploring the reasons behind its existence. I believe all of this helps to prove that the truck is accomplishing its task successfully.

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