I take it that art’s purpose is to illuminate the world in a new way, provoke a reaction, and somehow alter the consciousness of the observer. Sand art definitely succeeds this purpose. The first time I saw a demonstration of this particular art, I was awed. Its delicate yet intricate execution makes the granular stuff vocal enough to stir a thinking soul. Sand drawing is a Ni-Vanuatu artistic and ritual tradition and practice recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
The name sand art succinctly explains the medium but fails to articulate the inspirational wonder that it manages to inspire. It is always in constant motion, evolving every second, sand art involves participation as the observer watches live performance art created before them. All of the curves, circles, lines and loops are all connected to form a design that tells a story. It is important to complete the design fluidly and continuously, stopping in the middle is considered an imperfection in the drawing.
Often a grid is drawn in the sand and then a design is created with the grid as a framework. Sometimes the grid is comprised of straight lines and other times it is created from a pattern of dots. Many of the designs are completed in a continuous line that ends where it begins. Others are composed of a group of symmetrically arranged lines. These geometrical figures were considered one of the most significant cultural findings by Bernard Deacon, an English Anthropologist.
In a letter to his fellow Anthropologist he wrote: “I’ve certainly never seen or heard anything like it. ” He came across complex designs drawn in the sand and in the dust of volcanic ash plains. He decided to record the drawings and their meanings as he traveled through Malekula, Ambae, Ambrym, Paama, Pentecost, Maewo, Epi, and the Banks Islands. Some of these drawings describe the strength and personalities of mythic heroes. Others tell of the world of spirits. There are some sand drawings that are images of plants or animals.
Others are used for purposes of communication and take the place of numbers or phrases. In other sand drawings an important theme is the natural world that surrounds us. There is certainly spirituality to the work and its temporary nature speaks volume. UNESCO describes sand drawing as a “rich and dynamic graphic tradition which has developed as a means of communication among the members of some 80 different language groups inhabiting the central and northern islands of Vanuatu.
The drawings also function as mnemonic devices to record and transmit rituals, mythological lore and a wealth of oral information about local histories, cosmologies, kinship systems, song cycles, farming techniques, architectural and craft design, and choreographic patterns. Most sand drawings posses several functions and layers of meaning: they can be ‘read’ as artistic works, repositories of information, illustration for stories, signatures, or simply messages and objects of contemplation. The Vanuatu Cultural Center has noted sand drawing’s “content and deep sense is tending to disappear. ” Nowadays, only few practitioners master still master sand drawing and its associated knowledge. The practice has tended to become focused on the graphic aspect, for advertising or tourism, to the loss of its original meaning and function. ” Consequently, a national action plan for safeguarding of sand drawing has been initiated by the centre, together with the Save Sand Drawing Action Committee program sponsored by UNESCO. The project notably led to a sand drawing festival as of 2004.