Review, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 71:01, 287-288; (revised from original).
On Wings of Diesel : Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan. By Jamal J. Elias. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2011. xv, 252 pp. £29.99/$45.00 (paper).
On Wings of Diesel is a comprehensive ethnography of the entire socio-cultural regime of Pakistani trucking—owners, drivers, designers and painters—as well as of the colorful, elaborate truck decorations and handwork. After Partition in 1947 and the formation of the new nation, what was left of the old railroad system was never expanded or improved. Trucking is the main transport system. The author, himself Pakistani, evidently controls many Pakistani dialects. His research took place between1998 and 2004. The book’s copious, sharp-resolution, brilliantly saturated color photographs make it especially appealing by offering the reader a wealth of images and discussions to ponder.
The first chapter briefly reviews some of the literature on conveyance arts; the following four chapters engage Pakistani history, educational institutions, and the relationship between owners, drivers, artists, and truck design; following are four chapters that engage his semiotic analyses of decoration layout and symbolism. The last chapter considers Pakistani truck arts and crafts as outsider-designated “Art,” appreciated in exhibitions, borrowed in art installations, or commodified for the souvenir trade. The study also provides an Appendix consisting of truck epigraphy, in English and Urdu, listing road slogans and romantic, religious, and philosophical verses inscribed on and within the paintings.
Elias stresses multiple agencies in truck decoration: "...the creation of the visual object is a corporate...enterprise in which the truck designer (or artist) shares agency with the owner and truck driver who, at the same time, constitute the primary audience for this form of art." (p.12) His last chapters discuss the décor’s multivalent significations as illuminated by a Pakistani imaginary stocked with the romance of Persian poetry, popular songs and cinema beauties, posters, national heroes, and religious imagery. Yet, like the rickshaw artists of Bangladesh, Pakistani truck artists and owners avoid discussing the meaning and associations of their imagery with someone not in their circle.
His encyclopedic approach, however, exhibits an inexplicable lacuna and makes some questionable claims. As he writes: "Although there are several excellent examples of [visual studies] for a number of contexts, including Pakistan's neighbor India, such studies are sadly lacking for the Islamic world [my emphases], …due in part to the common misperception that Muslims are opposed to representational art and are…more attuned to words and text…." (p.12) Not so fast! What about Muslim majority Bangladesh, once part of Pakistan? Are they not Pakistan’s neighbors? Do they not have wildly colorful and figurative conveyance arts? Do they not have associated ethnographic studies? In addition, the ‘visual/text’ binary is today old hat and needs to be discarded.
Elias quotes Freedberg’s assertion that “the impulse to decorate is innate to human nature” (p.12), but this point is entirely secondary to Freedberg’s main point, avoided by Elias but a central feature of my argument about the vicissitudes of conveyance arts in Muslim countries: that vision, seeing, is an innate need that grasps at objects of desire—hence the portrayal in conveyance arts of landscapes, religious devotional symbols and texts, beautiful women, and images of warfare technology, such as tanks and rockets. (See, David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.)
In my study on Bangladeshi rickshaw arts (with comparisons to India and Pakistan), I cited Freedberg’s view as central to deconstructing the power and agency of hadithic figurative proscription as it does or does not influence artists depicting human or animal figures in the decoration of rickshaws. In Bangladesh, unlike the scopic regime of Pakistani truck arts, before the year 2000 such proscriptions often functioned as an imaginary spiritual sword hanging over the heads of some rickshaw artists. (See, Joanna Kirkpatrick. Transports of Delight : The Ricksha Arts of Bangladesh. A CD-ROM. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003.) Today, the younger Dhaka city artists are attuned to international Hip-hop and cinema culture, with no taboo on endlessly depicting pink-faced cinema stars on their rickshaw art panels. Perhaps Pakistani truck owners, who decide a truck’s semiotic content, have such great economic prestige from their costly monetary investment (these trucks cost thousands of rupees), and the signal importance of trucks in the national economy, that they need not worry about religious iconophobia—the issue would be personal. There is no evidence in Elias’s study, for instance, that Pakistani trucks were ever attacked and defaced by Salafist goon squads, as has occurred many times in Bangladesh.
Worldwide conveyance arts have come under ethnographic observation since the middle of the last century, although there is also an older literature on European conveyance arts of the 17th and 18th centuries, focused on carriage decoration. Those royal and elite vehicles were prestigious, whereas the prestige of South (and Southeast) Asian conveyance arts resides mainly in the social realm of the drivers and decorators. Just as the wealthy Anglophone upper class in Pakistan usually deplore or ignore the “vulgarity” of Pakistani truck décor, the same fits the Bangladeshi elite’s views of rickshaw arts. One of Elias’s main socio-economic points about the trucks of Pakistan is also echoed in the rickshaws of Bangladesh: the denizens of these trades, unlike foreign tourists and artists, view their vehicles primarily as a means of profit and employment, not simply as decorative conveyances; but they love them just the same.
New World Film Review Editor, Visual Anthropology