Stepping Over the Fence

In his essay A Conceptual Analysis of the Aesthetics, David Driedger [1], gives a rather startling example of the subject-object relationship in evaluating aesthetics, using the sub heading, ‘Beauty as the Beast.’ He asks us to imagine a bull in a fenced enclosure. From our side of the fence, we imagine many ways of relating to the bull. However, if we climb over the fence and enter the bull’s space, our relationship completely alters. While the bull has not changed, we begin to perceive it in a completely altered manner. ‘The relationship becomes mutual, though unequal. However, in contrast to scientific assumptions, the subject cannot control the procedures. The subject must instead understand how to relate.’

Those artists who have stepped outside their traditional art practice to collaborate with artists on the other side of the fence will possibly recognise this effect. Successful public art collaborations have depended on the suspension of any pre-conceptions about art, and the clearing of a space where a meeting of commonalities are made possible. In 1994, I first stepped over the fence into the world of truck artists [2]. It was not a collaboration with truck artists, but rather an appropriation of the truck as a moving art gallery, in which art students made paintings on the truck, and established artists of Karachi contributed works. The Art Caravan[3] went on a countrywide tour stopping mostly at the sponsor, PSO’s, petrol stations along the way where the works were presented for viewing to locals. The main objective was to take ‘art’ that usually found its way into galleries to another art audience – one that was familiar with the artworks on decorated transport. The work of the art students altered with the awareness of this new audience and as the work on the truck progressed, it became more obviously positioned to communicate in the language that this new audience would relate to.

There was at the time considerable consternation in the mainstream art world about crossing the fence and proposing a mutual evaluation of these two art worlds. There were, and still are, many doubts about the reading of decorated transport as art. Recently I received an e-mail suggesting that this cannot be art. The decoration of transport was called:

'the fantasies of uneducated masses ...Image-making in itself cannot be art. For it to be art, it must have an agency. By agency, I mean its self-consciousness, which should be within art as well as its maker. It must contain reflection and contemplation, by which it must declare itself as art beyond its (decorative) visibility.'

The questions [this e-mail] raised for me were firstly about assumptions about what constitutes ‘education’, who are ‘the masses’, and who evaluates 'self-conscious agency’? Education is not achieved only in academia. Life itself and one’s chosen area of activity affords the opportunity to gain experience and expertise and knowledge that may result in the same understanding and sophistication one would expect of a graduate. I have always had a problem with the term ‘the masses.’ It seems that once intellectuals, professionals, politicians, and the list of other powerful citizens has been determined, the rest are lumped together in the judgmental word ‘masses.’ Yet the remaining citizens are too diverse to be given one identity (or rather one lack of identity).

Nevertheless, as this is a common concern, it is necessary to address this question which is ultimately one of terminology. Ethnography and cultural studies absorb these areas of practice quite naturally. When, on the other hand, one attempts to allocate to it a genre of its own, the misunderstandings compound. These arts have been variously called 'popular art', 'street art', and 'urban craft.' Yet each of these terms leaves out what is essential to transport artists or cinema hoarding [4]painters for that matter. ‘Popular Art’ was a term specifically assigned to art that addressed the urban mass culture that grew with industrialisation, including advertising, television, and film. ‘Street Art’ is usually subversive, in the form of urban graffiti and other interventions in public places. ‘Urban Craft’ commonly refers to independent crafts persons making decorative objects, jewelry, and what are known lightly as the Arts and Crafts.

Perhaps one has to go back to questioning the presuppositions of the word ‘art.’ Modernism caged the word when it lifted art practice out of its functional context into the independent art object, to be viewed in galleries instead of places of worship and palaces. As Western capitalist society evolved, it established ‘art as object’ as a valued and prized commodity. Perhaps in Pakistani society, rather than linear evolutions, there are a piling of impositions – from colonialism; from the willing acquisition of international norms; from the pressure to be recognised as a modern society. Simultaneously, traditional local practices have been evolving in a parallel universe, which include language, poetry, music, customs, clothing, and spirituality. The Pakistani artist, nurtured in an art environment redefined during British rule rather than the traditional karkhana[5] has, to his/her credit, always tried to bridge these two universes through the inclusion of calligraphy, oriental imagery, rural themes and more recently, the revival of miniature painting. As Pakistani society became more urban, younger, and more directly connected to the art produced in other non-western societies, through biennales, international residencies, and exhibitions, the desire for cultural authenticity widened the subject matter and materials for the artist.

While the artists of Lahore affirmed their Mughal heritage by re-appropriating the Mughal miniature, the artists of Karachi, more eclectic and unfettered by tradition, looked to contemporary visual imagery including advertising, transport decoration, and objects of common consumption. Over a period of time a cross-fertilisation has taken place and miniature travelled to Karachi, while Lahore absorbed the brash subject matter of Karachi. This is admittedly an oversimplification, however, in the context of this essay, it is meant only to lay down some points of reference.  

Returning to what lies on the other side of the fence, while the terminology may be elusive, it is possible to define its characteristics. Vehicle decoration and cinema painting use stylistic devices which we would not question and would even admire if it was seen, for example, in the context of architecture or book illumination. In fact the truck artists trace their professional lineage to mural painting in pre-partition palaces of India. Many of the devices such as the use of borders, the sweeping black lines and much of the imagery can be found in Rajastani miniature painting and Kalighat paintings; many of the patterns and colours used are in the same language as the ceilings of old palaces, mosques, and shrines. One may assume that for the local artist, there is an easy flow between both sides of the fence. A good number of contemporary gallery artists began their journey as cinema hoarding painters.

The crossing is more problematic from this side of the fence. One of the reasons may be the presuppositions of the purpose of art. This is better understood by looking in more detail at the different intentions of the parallel worlds of art. Neither vehicle decoration nor cinema paintings are made to increase in value over time, but will in fact be discarded or damaged in a relatively short time. The bus or truck will be re-made; the cinema painting will be painted over for the next film. Yet they will be made with the same intensity and care as the work of art displayed in a gallery. The vehicle owner will spend several lakhs (100,000 rupees) decorating his vehicle, with no expectation of financial return. The work of both transport artists and cinema painters are collectively produced much as the old guilds of artists did, with the main ustad or master painter signing his name. The work is always commissioned much as pre-19th century European art was. Within the parameters of that commission, the artist, as he did in those early days, will interpret and express his own style, in the knowledge of recognition by the interested viewer. Thus, the work of the trailblazing cinema painters, Azad, Mustafa, S Khan; the truck painters Ustad Yusuf, Master Sahab or Haider will be awaited and admired by their followers.

One of the main difficulties in the collaboration between these two styles of artist is the difference in the fundamental canon of aesthetics each follows. The gallery artist, no matter how far away he/she moves from the centre, is primarily trained in the Renaissance/Bauhaus tradition. The canon of the vehicle and cinema artist is axially different in composition, use of colour, and symbolism. This makes a true collaboration difficult and usually only works when, for example, the concept is presented to the vehicle or cinema painter and the interpretation is left to him/her. While the aesthetic principles may be rigid, the vehicle and cinema artist has the ability to absorb new imagery and new materials within that canon. Often when the gallery artist intends to absorb the imagery or materials of those artists of the other side, the materials and imagery remain as emblems of their source rather than becoming part of his/her own art language. What remains, is the certainty of one and the uncertainty of the other.

Where does this certainty come from if not from the sense of belonging to the tradition of the land? There are over 270,000 km of road in Pakistan, all of which have been traversed by the 250,000 commercial vehicles in Pakistan, mostly decorated, and have been viewed by most of Pakistan’s population of 175 million [6].  Although the number of cinema theatres has declined dramatically, there are still over 400, and while, according to a Gallup Pakistan poll, 77% do not go to the cinema [7], the billboards are in full public view if not directly noticed, certainly in the peripheral vision of passengers on roads or shoppers.

Compare that to perhaps a maximum of 50 art galleries in Pakistan, visited by perhaps less than 1% of the population. The art of vehicle and cinema artists is sometimes called ‘outsider art’ but who is the outsider? Is it not arguably the gallery artist, who requires a viewer who has the knowledge of international art practices, and who finds appreciation and understanding of his work not on the streets of his/her country but in international biennales and art galleries? This is not to suggest that there is an insurmountable impasse, but many more crossings are required to integrate the parallel art worlds.


This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for 'The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan 1990-2010'. 

2. The elaborate decoration of trucks and public transport vehicles is an established industry in Pakistan that has earned wide national and international acclaim. Painted imagery, repoussé stainless steel metal embellishment, reflective sticker collages, and coloured plastic fretwork are some of the media used to create these vibrant moving artworks. 
3. Art Caravan, 1994. Sponsored by Pakistan State Oil. Produced by Durriya Kazi in collaboration with students of Karachi School of Art. 
4. Cinema theatres across the country carry painted ‘trailers’ of the film on show that are painted on large canvases, some as big as 300 feet wide and 90 feet high. This is a dying art as these paintings are rapidly being replaced by panflex prints. 
5. The painting workshops established at the courts of Mughal emperors and the princely states of India
6. The South Asian Energy and Infrastructure Group of the World Bank Jan 2005 


Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.


Durriya Kazi is an artist, curator and educator based in Karachi. She has curated international shows and events of decorated transport and cinema posters, presented papers at national and international conferences, and, in 1999, established the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi, which she heads. As a sculptor, her work attempts to create sites to voice ‘hidden histories.’ Seeing art less as object and more as experience/intervention, her aim is to bring art away from the periphery to a more central place in society through collaboration and inclusion. Her seminal work, the Art Caravan (1994), set a pattern for her public art projects. Her writing is included in the book The Revolutionary Century by Alison Carroll, published by Macmillan, Australia, 2010.



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