Interpreting the Sand Drawings (sandroing) from Vanuatu

Sand drawings are an ancient form of art that is practised by countless cultures across space and time. Ancient Greek mathematicians studied geometry by drawing figures in the sand. The famous dot paintings from central Australia started as drawings in the sand. The Tchokwe people in Angola draw pictures in the sand to illustrate their stories. Drawing an image in loose sand is possibly the most ancient form of art because it does not require anything but sand and a finger or a stick.

Vanuatu Sand Drawings

During a short holiday in Vanuatu, I encountered another fascinating form of sand drawing in the National Museum in Port Vila. These sand drawings, or sandroing in the local Bislama language, are a spellbinding form of art. These works of art have intricate patterns that hide several layers of complexity.

Like people have done for tens of thousands of years, the artist creates complex patterns with his finger in the sand. The Vanuatu drawings mainly consist of a continuous line through a thin layer of volcanic sand. The image only exists at the moment it is created and is soon erased by either the artist or is dissolved by the elements. UNESCO recognises these ephemeral works of art as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This global status helps The Ni-Vanuatu, the original inhabitants, to preserve their traditional form of art.

Expressions of an art of this kind deserve their status as intangible heritage because it represents much more than beautiful lines in a layer of sand. These drawings have a deep cultural meaning that goes beyond a rational description of the patterns they describe. This article explores the four layers of meaning within the sand drawings of Vanuatu.

Demonstration of sand drawings (sandroing) at the National Museum of Vanuatu

A local artist creating sand drawings (sandroing) at the National Museum of Vanuatu in Port Vila.

Creating a Sandroing

The Vanuatu sand drawings are a complex phenomenon. Sandroings are both a static work of visual art and dynamic performance. In the visual arts, the process of creating the painting or sculpture is hidden from view. We only consider the final creation after the artist has completed it. In performance art, the work is created in front of an audience. Performance art does not result in anything tangible but creates an intangible experience. Vanuatuan sand drawings combine aspects of both performance art and the visual arts because the work is produced in front of the spectators and the performance results in a final composition.

A sandroing is as much about the performance as about the final result. The drawing only exists at the moment that it is created. The best way to fully appreciate sandroings is to watch the artist create them. This video, taken at the National Museum of Vanuatu, shows how the artist creates draws a grid and the weaves the intricate pattern in one smooth motion.

Interpreting Sand Drawings

Anthropologist Bernard Deacon was the first Westerner to describe the sandroings. He lived among the local tribes in the 1920s and described more than a hundred different designs. Tragedy struck just as Deacon was about to return home when he suddenly died of Blackwater fever. The locals had another explanation as they thought that he was killed by spirits because he desecrated their sacred spaces. After his death, Deacon inspired many anthropologists and Camilla Wedgewood published his work on the sand drawings in 1934.

The Vanuatu sandroings conceal layers of deeper meaning beyond the skilful drafting of complex squiggly lines. The first two levels of meaning are exoteric. Anyone who experiences the drawings and is willing to learn about them can know these levels. At the deeper levels, you need to be initiated to understand what the drawing means. The last two levels are esoteric and are only fully known to the initiated.

First Level

At the most superficial level, we can describe a sandroing as a layer of fine volcanic sand in which the artist draws a geometrical pattern with his fingers. In many instances, the artist tells a story while she moves her finger through the sand. The drawings illustrate the story as the artist simultaneously speaks and draws. Aesthetically, the Vanuatuan sandroings have a lot in common with the complex patterns of Celtic knots and Islamic interlace patterns.

The drawings are not just an aesthetic line composition, but they are an also written language. Some drawings convey simple messages such as: “I am not home now, I am in my garden”, or more complex messages about life after death. In more recent times, the typical geometry of the sandroings has been developed into an alphabetic script. The Avoiuli script is used by people on Pentecost island and is an excellent example of how traditional and contemporary culture merge to form new expressions.

Second Level

At the second level, we can describe the drawings geometrically, as shown in the drawing by Deacon. The sandroings follow mathematical patterns and anthropologists in the early twentieth century were surprised that these ‘primitive’ people were capable of abstract reasoning. When Deacon reproduced these drawings, he used a ruler and compass to express their mathematical complexity. The drawing below shows a turtle that requires more than one hundred steps to describe.

Sketch of a sand drawing (sandroing) by A. Bernard Deacon in 1927

Sketch of a turtle sand drawing by A. Bernard Deacon in 1927

Mathematicians model these drawings using graph theory which shows that a mathematical mind does not require a written language. The field of ethnomathematics studies abstract expression found in cultures that have no fully developed writing system. The sandroings show that the Ni-Vanuatu who developed this form of art had a finely developed sense of geometry.

Third Level

At the penultimate level, the drawings are a mnemonic device to communicate complex aspects of local culture.  At the deeper level, these drawings illustrate the stories that the artist tells during their creation. These stories can be straightforward and fun but also explain deeper aspects of their culture such as cosmology, kinship and religious wisdom.

Australian anthropologist Stephen Zagala has worked in Vanuatu to preserve this rich tradition. He describes the philosophical nature of these drawings. One such drawing illustrates how people deal with secrets.

If an outsider asks a local about hidden aspects of their traditions, the answer will be indirect and in different directions. The sand drawing that explains this concept expresses this idea with a weaving line that takes unexpected turns. The complete drawing has a small diamond shape in the centre that represents the wisdom that was sought.

Fourth Level

At the fourth level, we enter the horizon of reason. This level is where the deeper mystical meaning of the drawings resides, which is only known to the initiated. Some drawings have to be studied by individuals so that they understand their journey in the afterlife. These drawings express esoteric aspects of local culture which can only be understood by the initiated, by those people that fully understand the context in which their culture exists.

My Sandroing Pinterest Board


Peter Prevos

Social scientist and engineer who dabbles in magic tricks.

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