The Daily Heller: Recalling Afghan Truck Art Before the Taliban

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The Taliban believe “art is a path to corruption and vice in society,” which raises the question of whether or not the once-exquisite practice of Afghan drivers decorating their trucks is still tolerated by religious law.

Afghan Trucks (Stonehill Publishing Co., 1976), featuring photos and text by Jean-Charles Blanc and design by Roy Walker, is the first book on global vernacular (folk art) graphic design that I ever owned. Now that the Taliban has reestablished its ultra-orthodox rule, it is hard to conceive that these gems of street art will continue with impunity. (Although they are also common in Pakistan and India.)

They represent modern updates on an ancient custom where Afghan caravan drivers covered their camels with ribbons, tassels, fringe and plenty of good luck charms to see them through dangerous desert crossings. “Flowers transform [the trucks] into a moving oasis,” writes Blanc. “With rows of tulips and bouquets of roses clinging to it sides, the Afghan truck is like a traveling art gallery wending its way through arid mountains and deserts.”

The author documents how “a startling variety” of pictorial themes were common, from religious and spiritual iconography to fantastical representations, “rockets and interstellar spacecraft, armadas of galleons and fleets of steamers …”

Probably one very specific image is hidden from view: “that of women,” a daring theme for the society.

There is a practical reason for this folk art: “The finer the painting, the more clients the truck owner will attract.” With luck, not all this art is gone, and with luck, a regime that allows this and other freedoms to flourish will someday take hold. For now the book Afghan Trucks is a positive artifact recalling a time when joyful art thrived in the most unforgiving of terrains.