Sandroing (sand drawing) is a practice that’s unique to Vanuatu. Although sandroing implies that a message is drawn on the sand, according to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, the original medium is actually soil from the earth. Sandroing can also be performed on volcanic ash or clay.
Sandroing begins with a grid drawn on the sand. Geometric patterns are then created using a single finger. The point where the finger starts is also where it ends. Once the drawing begins, the finger must follow a continuous movement and not be lifted off the sand until the message is completed. Sandroing is thought to have many layers and meanings. It was traditionally performed to send messages or tell stories but today the graphic tradition is mostly practiced to entertain tourists or to create pretty symmetry that doesn’t have any specific meaning.
In 2003, UNESCO recognized sand drawing as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Despite being safeguarded by UNESCO, the knowledge and function of sandroing is known only to a few people. Julia Toto, the Video Digitization Officer at the Vanuatu Cultural Center, can perform a handful of sandroings but says that this ancient practice is slowly being lost. She believes that there are about ten people left in Vanuatu who possesses the knowledge of sandroing. ‘When they die, sand drawing will probably die with them too’, she said.
When UNESCO recognized sand drawing as heritage listed, the initial plan was to introduce the practice into the school curriculum. But this has yet to happen. The Vanuatu Cultural Center did run Custom School every Saturday from 2007 until 2013 but unfortunately funding ran out and the program came to a close. Ms. Toto says, ‘Children who were interested in sandroing came to learn about it. Since sandroing was mostly practiced in the northern islands of Vanuatu, custom school was an opportunity for children from the southern islands to learn too. But now we don’t have the funding to keep custom school going.’
Another reason why the practice of sandrawing is being lost is because unlike painting, sculptures or carvings, the practice of sandroing is expressed on a transient medium. Sand, soil and volcanic ash don’t retain the message and can be easily swept away by a hand or wind or rain. There are no ancient sandroings that one can refer to. All the messages and functions are kept with the few sandroing masters left. Even then, for the others who have a basic understanding of sandroing, its still no longer practiced anywhere in Vanuatu for it’s traditional purposes, which was the opportunity to tell legends and stories. UNESCO says, ‘If left unchecked, this tendency to appreciate sand drawings on a purely aesthetic level may result in the loss of the tradition’s deeper symbolic significance and original social function.’
Ms. Toto tells a popular story about an old man from Pentecost called Gwetu Gwetu who had sores all over his body. He wasn’t able to garden or go swim in the saltwater. He stayed in the house and would ask for food, like kumala or taro, from his neighbors. He knew he was going to die one day and called everyone from the village and said ‘Soon I’m going to die. Every time I asked for help, you would help me. But now I have one last thing to ask you. If I die tonight or tomorrow, mi wantem se yu kutem bodi blong mi. Put all the small pieces of my body in the ground. I want to give something back to you for everything you have done for me.’ When he died, the village cut his body in small parts and buried them separately in the ground. As the months passed, they saw that yam was growing from where he was buried. That’s how he repaid them for helping him when he was alive.
Ms. Toto admits that she can do the drawing, but cannot tell the story at the same time. This is the skill of a master sand drawer. UNESCO describes a master sand drawer as someone who ‘possesses not only a strong knowledge of graphic patterns but also a deep understanding of their significance. In addition, sand drawers should have the ability to interpret the drawings for spectators.’
If you are interested in learning about sandroing, tours are available at the Cultural Center. One of the guides, Edgar, is a master sand drawer, who travels as far as China to promote sandroing. You will find him dressed in a Nambas and performing sandroing when tourists come from the cruise ship.
Although custom school has ceased , students from schools across Port Vila including Vila East, Central Primary, Malapoa and Lycee Francais, often visit the Cultural Center. All schools are welcome to call the Cultural Center to organize a tour. The tour includes a guide and allows the children to practice sand drawing at no cost. This is a wonderful opportunity to generate the discussion of sand drawing to the future generation. Perhaps they may have the answer how to keep this sacred indigenous expression alive.
Please call +678 22129 if you would like to book a tour at the Cultural Center.