I live in Amherst, Massachusetts in the New England region of the United States (U.S.). Although it sits just two hours by car from Boston and three hours from New York City, Amherst is still a small town where you often see friends and neighbors anytime you leave your home. Amherst is not typical However. It’s home to several colleges including the large campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (“UMass”).
I work for the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, a program that serves as a public service and outreach arm of the university. One of the services we provide is running international exchange programs funded by the U.S. Department of State. Through these grants, we’ve worked for the last 10 plus years with visiting groups of college students and professionals from around the world, including many college students and professionals from across Pakistan.
During those years, we’ve visited Pakistan multiple times to continue our programs and to connect with our alumni. During a 2014 visit, my co-workers met the Karachi artist group, Phool Patti. Phool Patti specializes in “truck art” not only for vehicles in Pakistan but they also use the colorful and playful images as a means to project a softer image of Pakistan to the rest of the world. In 2017, I was in Karachi for the first time. My UMass colleagues and I toured the Phool Patti workshop and even helped them paint a tanker truck. It was then that I started to understand that Phool Patti wasn’t just a commercial operation but that they also were heavily engaged in cultural diplomacy throughout Pakistan and across the world. Late that year, Phool Patti CEO Ali Salman Anchan contacted me to say he and Head Artist Haider Ali would be on the east coast of the U.S. in June of 2018. “Would it be possible for us to come to Amherst?”, Anchan asked. I jumped at the chance to have this happen. Though small, Amherst residents often display eagerness to learn about international cultures.
Phool Patti indeed came to Amherst in 2018 and our town will never be the same. Their “canvas” was a privately owned bus (designed to look like an old electric trolley) that transports UMass students and their families from the university campus to downtown Amherst. As Anchan and Ali put the finishing touches their 50-plus hours of work on the trolley, it was parked at a large town festival. The bright colors appearing on the reimagined trolley attracted many people at first from a distance. Then, as the curious crowds got closer, the images painted all over the trolley came into better focus. For example, they saw familiar and brightly painted scenes of Amherst like our local gently rolling green hills, a scene on the UMass campus, flowers, a squirrel, a duck and horses. Coupled with those were also images of Pakistan like snow-capped peaks, a peacock and partridges. Additionally, poetic Urdu expressions adorned the bumpers, serving as messages to other drivers to either “keep your distance or you might just fall in love”. Painted images also included several pairs of US and Pakistan flags. These coupled flags best represented the peaceful mission of Phool Patti in the U.S. and the spirit of collaboration that made this project possible.
In May 2019, the painted trolley was the featured part of a Pakistan cultural event in Amherst. Not only was the brightly painted truck art trolley parked in the center of town, Pakistan music was playing over loudspeakers, a large Pakistan flag waved in the wind, Pakistanis and Americans alike took part in attan dancing and local residents lined up to get their names translated into beautiful Urdu script. Again, the bright colors attracted curiosity and many walked away with a different image of Pakistan. It was nothing less than a temporary Pakistan takeover of downtown Amherst.
Although Phool Patti left Amherst last summer to continue their mission of peace and cultural exchange, they left a brightly painted reminder of their visit to Amherst, Massachusetts and a window into a different side of Pakistan.
(Kenneth LeBlond is the marketing communications manager at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.)