BEIRUT: It can be a hateful thing, driving behind a cargo truck. These huge vehicles are so accomplished at blocking the view of the drivers behind them that they always manage to increase the stress levels of motorists around them. In Lebanon as much as anyplace else, trucks can also be a source of great surprise.
Many older models of truck can make you wonder about their road worthiness, yet in Lebanon such vintage vehicles are also often adorned with paintings – whether figurative drawings, calligraphy or other symbols – enlivening the irritating, monstrous utility of cargo beds, bumpers and indiscernible metallic bits.
This is the perspective Lebanese photographer Houda Kassatly has brought to bear for her latest series, now on show at Alice Mogabgab Gallery. “Voyage des Mots au gre des Camions” (The Travel of Words through Lebanon’s Trucks) exhibits Kassatly’s take on the unique cultural role these trucks play.
Taken between 2006 and 2011, these 50-odd photos depict the colorful and symbolic representations of Lebanon found on the skins of its laboring vehicles.
Not content to show the photos alone, Kassatly accompanies her work with the truck ornamentations’ different readings.
Kassatly may be best known for her photos of abandoned architecture and the profound absence that resides in Lebanon’s obsolescent houses. Her lens brings these ruined places into sharp definition, highlighting the integral place they occupy in the county’s cultural heritage. Although consigned to the past, the beauty of these structures is resuscitated in her photography.
The same aesthetic can be ascribed to Kassatly’s trucks series. The scribbles and drawings should be accorded more significance than mere doodles on a metallic surface. For owner-operators, the designs adorning their vehicles are a way to appropriate the machines and to give them an identity.
Red, yellow and blue make up the vehicles’ principal color palette. It seems most of the mobile calligraphy embellishing them is created by artists working in the south of Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley.
These ornaments can be classified into several types. The first identifies the driver by writing his name, or a sentence referring to him. The objective is to demonstrate that the operator’s vehicle is an extension of his self – indeed men are renowned for their attachment to their vehicles.
Many cargo trucks are embellished with such symbols as the hand of Fatima, horseshoes or representations of human eyes – all thought to be effective in warding off bad luck. Eye drawings specifically are assumed to prevent accidents and defuse negative vibes generally. Such prophylactics find expression in the cultural production of the country generally, not merely in that of those who labor in its infrastructure.
Kassatly’s photos also convey the importance of the deity in conferring protection. Many trucks bear odes seeking divine mercy, or else offering advice to the motorists behind them, suggesting the driver be grateful, for instance, in order to secure continuing divine protection and love.
Many of the trucks depicted in Kassatly’s photographs also attest to their operators’ Lebanese patriotism. At the bottom of some vehicles, miniature drawings depict the country, its cedars and residents.
Representations of fountains, bright blue skies and wildlife demonstrate that these utilitarian vehicles also operate as mobile media conveying pop cultural ideal types of the home country.
Distinctive as local designs are in their specifics, this approach to the decoration of working class vehicles is hardly restricted to Lebanon.
Syrian and Iraqi cargo trucks, which once plied Lebanon’s roadways more frequently than today, are adorned with similar design motifs. Indeed, when scratching the covers of periodicals devoted to the culture of the global south, a reader will find this type of pop cultural expression as far afield as Morocco and Pakistan.
As gallerist Alice Mogabgab suggested, Kassatly’s photographs bring new meaning to the working vehicles that other motorists often try to avoid. The photographer’s trucks series expresses the same sociologically informed perspective as studies of Beirut’s abandoned architectural heritage. Traditions, her oeuvre suggests, persist.
Houda Kassatly’s “Voyage des Mots au gre des Camions” is on show at Alice Mogabgab Gallery until March 28. For more information, please call 03-210-424.