• Damisha Salim

On Wings of Diesel: A ‘Truck Art Perspective’ on the Pakistani Society all the way from UPenn

Jamal J. Elias, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes the Pakistani society through the lens of the country’s extensive ‘truck decoration culture’

Aayaa tha imtehaan mein mazmun ‘bewafaa’

Wazaahat jo teri ki ham top kar gaye*

(Courtesy: Pakistani Truck Art)


I hope that this particular kind of studying a society through something that people don't even normally think of as a medium through which you can understand a society. But, I argue in this book that, in fact, you can. I do that as part of a method, which is that through studying material culture you can actually understand the lives of people in fairly important ways.

(Jamal J. Elias in an interview with SAS Frontiers)


Truck art, though underappreciated, is one of the various vibrant forms of art thriving in Pakistan. The culture of vehicular ornation is so pervasive here that vehicles from huge trucks and buses to street vendors’ push carts can be found colorfully decorated with a combination of floral patterns, scenery, religious and political imagery, poetry (often hilarious), portraits of movie stars and sports celebrities, and much more.


Jamal J. Elias, Annenberg Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, presents a phenomenal narrative about the tradition of truck art in Pakistan in his book On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity, and Culture in Pakistan (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2011). Exploring the prevalence and significance of this distinct form and practice of art for over a period of seven years on the roads of Karachi, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, he is able to provide a truly unique perspective on the dynamics of Pakistani society. The book not only extensively deals with aesthetics of the subject matter, beautifully illustrated with Elias’ own photographic work of Pakistani truck art, but also includes interviews with long and short-haul truck drivers elaborating upon the figurative meaning underlying the various forms of imagery employed and materials used.


In an interview with SAS Frontiers, the magazine of UPenn’s School of Arts and Sciences, he asserts that the book is about

“Pakistani society, its class structure, the aspirations of various people, education, economics, religion certainly, all viewed through this window of, essentially, the culture of truck decoration.”

He further adds, “More than anything else, I hope people take away two things: one, an appreciation for how actually beautiful the trucks are because it's heavily illustrated, and the second thing is that they get a sense of the richness of a society and understand that you can actually approach understanding a society through many, many different ways.”


Being a well-researched interdisciplinary contribution to the literature on Pakistani society, the book was awarded the Best Senior Book Prize by the American Institute of Pakistan Studies in 2012.


via Penn Today

* imtehaan: exam

mazmun: essay

bewafaa: the one who betrays, especially in love

wazaahat: to explain


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