Pakistani truck artist has a driving ambition to improve understanding between two cultures

A huge photograph of a U.S. drone, displayed on the H&R Block Artspace Project Wall at 43rd and Main streets, epitomizes the tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Parked in a lot a few miles away, an old Chevy truck could help the citizens of both nations understand each other a little bit better — if Kansas City artist Asheer Akram has his way.

Akram is acutely attuned to the tensions represented by the Project Wall photograph, taken by Pakistani photographer Noor Behram.

He experienced the good and the bad of Pakistani attitudes to Americans during a 2010 trip there, paid for by the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program, which is based here.

At times he struggled with cultural differences, including the protective attitude of his Pakistani relations — the aunts, uncles and cousins on his late father’s side whom he visited.

But as an artist he was entranced by the ornately decorated Pakistani cargo trucks that he encountered at every turn.

With their intricately carved doors, lively painted cabs and bedizened interiors, the trucks are like moving works of art. Since he returned from Pakistan, Akram has been consumed by the idea of creating an American version of the decorated truck and sending it on the road as a way to enhance understanding between the two cultures.

Last year, he purchased a 1952 grain truck in Salina.

The Chevy, which will need a new motor, tires, a transmission and power steering, is the closest thing Akram could find to a British-made Bedford, long the cargo truck of choice in Pakistan.

The truck sits waiting for Akram’s ministrations in the gravel lot outside his studio in a Belger Cartage building at 2011 Tracy Ave.

“Belger has been super-good to me,” he said.

In addition to providing Akram with studio space, Belger Arts Center’s founder, Dick Belger, and its executive director, Evelyn Craft, awarded Akram two sizable commissions.

One is to create a 300-foot steel-cut mural along the firm’s crane yard at 19th Street and Forest Avenue; the other is a mural for the entrance to the Belger complex on Tracy Avenue.

Akram describes the murals’ design scheme as a kind of “Islamic graffiti.”

If you’ve been to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, you’ve probably seen Akram’s work — he did the metalwork for “Sweet Chariot,” one of two artistically enhanced golf carts designed by Peregrine Honig to ferry visitors around the museum.

And if the cargo truck project comes to fruition, the Nelson has expressed interest in displaying it.

“The idea would be to (pair it with) a show of Southeast Asian or Islamic art; there’s a lot of possibilities,” said the museum’s director/chief executive officer Julián Zugazagoitia.

Akram has lined up commitments to help with the truck from an ace Pakistani truck painter, Haider Ali, and a Houston-based woodworker, Rahim Akbar, and he is raring to get started on the project.

“Funding’s been the biggest issue,” he said. He expects it will cost about $30,000 to complete — and now it’s crunch time.

After being turned down for funding by a local Rocket Grant program and failing to land one of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City’s grants to individual artists, Akram turned to Kickstarter, an online funding platform.

Akram launched his Kickstarter fund drive in mid-March and by mid-April had raised nearly $12,000. He needs to reach his $30,000 target by May 5, or it all goes away — Kickstarter will only pay for projects that achieve their monetary goals.

Akram lists many incentives, from bumper stickers and T-shirts for pledges of $50 or more, to a one-of-a kind sculpture of the truck for $500 or more. Give more than that, and there are many other options, including an opportunity to exhibit the finished truck.

In Pakistan, cargo truck design is a full-blown industry, employing thousands of craftspeople and artisans. The imagery taps a dizzying array of cultural sources, from movie stars to mythological figures, military heroes to religious shrines. Ornamented with glittering metal elements, silk fabrics and dangling mirrors, the elaborately turned out trucks have been compared to Mughal court decoration.

Akram’s truck will not be the first decorated cargo truck in the U.S. In 2002, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., commissioned Haider Ali and bodywork expert Jamil ud-Din to create a painted truck for its annual folk life festival.

But like its many prototypes, Akram’s truck will definitely be one of a kind.

His design will incorporate Midwestern and American motifs, including plants and animals, a buffalo and a bronze cow skull.

“Instead of traditional Pakistani style, we’ll be employing more of a graffiti style,” Akram said, “and we’re fabricating 22-inch spinners for the wheels.”