In many communities, writing is indistinguishable from performance. Within such traditions, the entire notion of words existing silently, immobile, or a page is incomprehensible, a wasted opportunity.
Let’s consider the sandworks of Vanuatu, with the help of Stephen Zagala, an Australian researcher who worked in Vanuatu for UNESCO and prepared the candidature file nominating Vanuatu Sand Drawing for inclusion on the UNESCO listing of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Vanuatu sandworks involve what we would consider a combination of art, geometry, storytelling, and sometimes singing. Each performance “…involves tracing geometric figures in dust, sand or ashes. Each design is considered to be a type of maze, and the line of the drawing is traced as a largely uninterrupted path, often without lifting the finger from the ground….”
While the storyteller traces the figure, he tells a story. As with the Chokwe sand narratives called Sona, the line in the sand is literally and figuratively the storyline. What outsiders may take as childish has, in fact, the most serious of purposes.
“[T]hey can be used to teach children about social responsibility or to explain philosophical concepts to adults. There are also sacred sand drawings which must be committed to memory in order to gain access to the afterlife.” Cosmic maps, in effect.
Even though Zagala refers to them as sand drawings, he is aware that in doing so he is giving way to a Western habit and viewpoint.
“To give credit to the intellectual sophistication of this practice, it is perhaps more accurate to describe sand drawing as an indigenous form of `writing,’ rather than `drawing.’ In fact, the indigenous words for sand drawing (uli, naites, nitüs, ghir, rolu, nana, ulan, etc) are the same words used to describe European writing. In this respect, it is important to realize that sand drawing are much more than simple pictures or decorative patterns.”
In an island region with dozens of different languages, the sandworks have “facilitated the exchange of ideas between different language groups, and travelers used them to leave messages in meeting places” and “became a sophisticated means of symbolizing and recording the singular rituals and mythologies of distinct language groups.”
Conversely, the sandworks may also act as a way of managing information. Zagala explains: “At the heart of this richly textured variation is the important Vanuatu concept of `jalus.’ This word is derived from the English word `jealousy,’ but its meaning extends beyond petty envy, and is often used in a positive way to describe the pride that people take in their regional differences.
“One of the ways this is evidenced is in the propriety and secrecy that surrounds local knowledge. People from the Raga language group, on the island of Pentecost, have a sand drawing which actually describes this concept of `jalus.’ The sand drawing can be thought of as a map or diagram of how people move around secrets. It is said that if an outsider asks a chief about an aspect of local custom, the chief will talk in an indirect way and send the inquisitive person off in different directions searching for an answer. The sand drawing illustrates the chief’s duplicitous instructions with a sinuous line that weaves back and forth taking unexpected turns. When the drawing is complete, there is a small diamond shape at the middle of the drawing that represents the knowledge being sought.”
Which means that the moving finger, representing the bewildered movements of the outsider, has actually passed right next to the secret four times (once for each side of the diamond) without noticing it. Hidden in plain sight.