New paper on Vanuatu sand drawings!

The Australian Journal of Anthropology recently published an article that I wrote on Vanuatu sand drawings. The paper is an analysis of a collection of sand drawings documented on Paama island, Vanuatu. It proposes a number of methodological tools for the systematic analysis of this fascinating, UNESCO-listed, but also vanishing cultural practice.

I filmed the performances with two cameras: a bird-eye view camera to get the drawer’s perspective and a wide-angled camera to capture interactions with the audience
Old Sam from Nau draws the Vetah ‘breadfruit’ sand drawing. Sand drawings are the intellectual properties of the sand drawer and their clan, and were exchanged as valuable goods across islands of the region. This one has for example also been documented on the neighouring island of Ambrym by Michael Franjieh.
There is only one uninterrupted line in this picture. A sand drawing is performed by starting and ending the tracing of the line from the same point (the red dot) without lifting one’s finger from the ground. Numbers and arrows are the directions that the drawer should follow to perform the drawing in the ‘right’ way (Paamese people say ‘straight!)’. I vectorized the 23 sand drawings of the collection in Adobe Illustrator for future revitalization purposes.
Titamol sin ‘the Titamol’s bones’, as performed by Old Sam from Nau, represent the spine of a forest spirit that Paamese people call Titamols. These forest spirits are described on Paama as being of human shape but smaller, hairy, and living in banyan trees. Their existence is well accepted on Paama and throughout the Vanuatu archipelago where they are commonly referred to as lisefsef in Bislama. Titamol entities are said to speak a secret language that they have occasionally shared with human islanders in the form of songs or numerals. There are stories where Paamese people have killed Titamol beings, with serious consequences for the community involved. I recorded the tragic story of Evol, a village in the south of Paama, where the villagers shot and killed a Titamol who cursed them for their crime. Soon after, a mysterious disease contaminated the whole village and all inhabitants died. The village is now indeed a ghost town of abandoned huts where nobody lives anymore.
Mattew Joe, from Tavie & Luli, performing the Oum ‘crab’ sand drawing on an iPad. Matthew recalled that, as a child, he and a few kids from Luli who would go out in the bush for several days with elders Willie Toungon and Harry Morsen from whom they learned the complex geometrical patterns and associated meaning.

The paper is published in open access, and can be accessed on the TAJA website or downloaded from my website. All the audio-video material collected is openly accessible from this archive.

Published by

Simon Devylder

Linguistic Anthropologist

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