Sandart- Ancient & Modern
by Amy Lenzo

This article is about three indigenous sand-based ‘art’ practices: the Navajo sandpainting ceremony, the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, and Aboriginal ground art. Each of these practices is a distinct & complex expression of a specific culture, which can only be properly understood within its cultural context, so I will attempt to bring some of this context to the fore in talking about them.

I will use the term 'art' to refer to these practices even though they differ in many ways from what we in the western world usually think of as art. For example, for the most part, the model for a western artist today is a talented individual working in isolation, in a particular medium, producing work to be exhibited &/or sold. In this model art exists in a sphere separate from the daily lives of most people & is not meant to have any purpose other than aesthetic. The process of making and selling art is largely a commercial enterprise; pretty much devoid of spiritual content.

What's Different Here?
Indigenous arts use a very different model. Each of these three art practices are made within the context of community for a specific purpose, in cultures that make no distinction between the spiritual and secular realms. In each of these three indigenous cultures, life, art & spirituality exist as one interconnected organism, where life itself is sacred, as are the natural & symbolic elements that, together, sustain it.

Another major difference between these three practices and most western art is the temporal sense associated with their exhibition & preservation. There is an irony here, however, because while we try to preserve western art, hanging it in museums with special machines to regulate the air & light quality, etc., the materials from which it is made are in themselves impermanent. Over time they fade, fray and disintegrate. In each of these indigenous forms, on the other hand, the value of the work is experiential, accessed through the process of making it. As soon as the artwork is complete, the materials from which it is made are cleared away, and the work is destroyed. However, the patterns that the art reproduces are integral to the culture that makes them. The memory of their form is embedded in cultural mythology or religious perceptions that have existed unchanged for thousands of years now. Lastly, unlike much western art, none of these practices are made in a single medium, but combine visual, oral and literary elements.

Each of three forms uses the representation of space, whether psychic or physical, as its basis. In early times people created homes out of the landscape that surrounded them. For example, the dwellings of desert communities in northwestern Africa and the middle East are made of the earth & sand, and there are similar sites throughout the world. The dwellings built by the Dogon people of Mali were symbolic models of the universe. They built their villages in pairs to represent heaven & earth, and cleared the land for them in spirals, to emulate the energy of the earth. A similar principle underlies traditional Japanese gardening, where a miniature version of the entire natural world is created through the microcosmic representation of natural materials into a garden landscape.

The use of symbology to render macrocosmic space into a microcosmic representation is one of the fundamental elements in all shamanic, or 'magical', systems of thought. According to these systems, the macrocosm, or whole system, exists in the microcosm, or each individual part of that system (this is also the idea described in the modern scientific theory of fractals). In shamanic practice, therefore, one reproduces the microcosm and in doing so evokes, or effects, the macrocosm. The mandala is one of the primary forms that illustrates this principle, and each of the three indigenous art practices we're talking about uses the mandalic form for this purpose. Each practice, or mandala, is organised around a central point. Symbolically, this point is a crucial element, because it marks the point of origin from which all things come into being.

Aboriginal Dreamtime
All Aboriginal art is a reinactment of the Dreamtime- a set of ritual practices which constantly reinvent & maintain the indigenous world through the repetition of aboriginal creation myths called Dreamings. The concept of Dreamtime is sometimes hard for the western mind to comprehend because it describes a time without differentiation between past, present & future. It is the primordial time of creation when the ancestors dreamed life into the earth and all the creatures that live upon it; it exists both now, and in the moment of its reinactment, to maintain and ensure the world's continued existence. Mircea Eliade describes it another way, as 'sacred time'- "a mythical time... not preceded by another time, because no time could exist before the appearance of the reality narrated in the myth. The first manifestation of a reality is equivalent to its creation by divine beings: hence, recovering this time of origin implies the ritual repetition of the god's creative act"

Through an elaborate kinship system, each aboriginal man and woman inherits the rights and responsibilities for a specific part of the landscape and/or the natural world, along with the Dreaming that created it, and the specific designs that harbour & evoke the ancestral energies of that Dreaming. These rights & responsibilities are always held in common between two individuals, or two groups [one inherits patralineally, and one inherits matralineally] and they manage this inheritance co-operatively. As a result, virtually all aboriginal art of this kind is made by at least two people.

Ground Art
One of the most sacred of aboriginal ceremonies is done in associatiion with elaborate ‘ground art’. Within the context of these ground sculptures, which are always holy and usually practised in secret, concentric circles are used to provide the means for ancestral power to surface, and also to return to the ground. The alternately coloured red and white concentric circles mark the exact spot in the desert where the Great Ancestor spirit energy is believed to have first emanated from the ground. It is an initiation ceremony of great power, in which an older man, a shaman, initiates the others into the primal mysteries of Aboriginal life. In this ritual, the initiates lay with their ears to the ground while the shaman pounds the earth rhythmically with a strong pole, which represents the connection between humans and the spirits of the ancestors.

Bark Paintings
Traditional aboriginal designs are now produced in acrylic paint, but these designs used to be painted exclusively on bark, or drawn in the sand. In these paintings, concentric circle imagery is used differently than in the ceremony we just spoke about. Sometimes it is used to show the element of fire and the waves of energy emanating from it. In other contexts, these circles indicate other elements within the natural world. The viewer's ability to interpret the images depends upon their knowledge of Aboriginal mythology and the particular dreaming depicted. In this way, western audiences can be exposed to Aboriginal art and yet their understanding of it will be different from an aboriginal’s, whose interpretation will be similarly be different from someone familiar with the area where it was painted, and theirs from the people who hold the Dreaming for that image.

Aboriginals view everything as an interconnected field of subtle energy emanations. As I mentioned earlier, in Aboriginal cosmology all time exists at once. Everything contains within its form the memory of its creation, its history and future, as well as its present, and the designs used to represent them reflect this perception in various ways. These images are not abstract designs, but simplified versions of what is actually seen and/or felt to be there. An image might indicate the food sources in an area, along with the paths that have led to them in the past, and might even show events that have occurred on these hunts.

For example, you might see an image depicting various food sources and the trails leading to them, where concentric circles indicate watering holes, or the witchety grub (which is a popular food source); the 'U' shapes signify an action, with the shape next to it indicating the type of action, like straight lines might indicate the digging sticks necessary to find the food source.

In 1988 a small group of Aboriginal artists colaborated on an Aboriginal Memorial, constructed as a response to the Australian bicentennial, which commemorated 200 years of European settlement. In a memorial to Aboriginal people, past, present and future, they carved 200 hollow log coffins- one for each year of European colonisation- to honour the thousands of Aboriginals who had been killed in that period. The exhibit is now on permanent display in Canberra.

Navajo Sandpainting-
Though their forms are very different, Native American and Native Australian cosmologies have much in common. They are both cultures rooted in a specific landscape. In Navajo sandpaintings, as in Aboriginal art, images are not symbolic in the usual sense of the word, but always refer to specific elements existing in either physical or mythological space. When a mountain is depicted in a Navajo chant, for example, it almost always refers to a mountain also existing in the landscape. In both cultures, land is holy & specific sites hold specific sacred associations.

Navajo Sandpaintings are complex healing ceremonies- performed for the benefit of a tribal member who requests them. Like Aboriginal Dreamings, Sandpainting rituals are reinactments of the native legends which provide the foundation for all aspects of Navajo life. There are several different types of sandpainting ceremonies- known as 'ways'- Blessingways, used for prevention; Holyways, for healing; and Evilways, for exorcism. The appropriate 'way' will be chosen by a Hand-Trembler, or native Shaman, and executed by a trained 'chanter' who will draw the paintings and perform the songs and dances associated with it.

In the Sandpainting ceremony, the painting functions as a mandala, with the person who is ill, or out of balance (the Navajo believe that all illness is a symptom of being out of balance with the natural order) placed in the middle of the painting. After the painting is finished, the chanter rubs their skin with sand from the images, bringing him or her back into the balance depicted by the painting.

Every aspect of this ceremony has significance. The hogan where the ritual takes place is built to precise dimensions in a specific geography. The ceremony always begins at dusk, and is completed at dawn, in accordance with Navajo beliefs of origin and emergence. The images for each painting are determined by the legend it is depicting and the sand is coloured with natural materials collected from sacred sites under specific conditions, each colour indicating a direction and/or other specific properties. In addition, every item and every person who comes into the physical or psychic sphere of the ceremony goes through a purification ritual before they enter.

Buddhist sand-mandalas
Like Aboriginal art and Navajo Sandpainting, Tibetan mandalas represent a cosmology, but theirs is not linked to geographic place. Instead, the Tibetan mandala depicts metaphysic space, a multileveled map of spiritual consciousness and, unlike the other two, it uses an abstract symbology.

The Tibetan mandala, like the other two forms, is a precise rendering of traditional patterns. The dimensions of the structure must be geometrically exact. These designs are used to produce the state of mind for various kinds of mediation and as initiations for monks into higher states of spiritual awareness. Each of four monks painting a mandala are working on a different direction. Using long, cone-shaped metal tools with a hole at one end, sand is tapped onto the surface of the mandala, a few grains at a time. This meditative act of mandala creation is accompanied by rhythmic chanting of the names of God, or traditional prayers.

Tibetan symbology consists primarily of circles, squares, and triangles. The circle is the key to the mandala- in fact the word mandala means circle in Sanskrit- it represents the unity of all existence, and the unbounded chaos of heaven. Squares represent the order of the four directions and the boundaries of human life on earth. Triangles stand for the trinity beyond duality and have different meanings depending on whether the point is upwards or downwards, or the two are intertwined, when it represents the realised human psyche.

The center of the mandala is almost always a circle, often surrounding a deity. This center is surrounded by a ritual number of squares & circles, symbolising the inseparable interconnection of the two elements. Complex religious ritual draws the divine essence- the One- down into the center of the mandala, where it is embodied in the form and therefore accessible to the monks working with the imagery. The numerous circles within the mandala depict a multitude of centers existing simultaneously on many levels.

To build a Tibetan mandala is to evoke the 'structuring principle' that brings cosmic elements into alignment, and gives them form. For the Tibetans, as for the aboriginal Australians and Navajo peoples, deities or sacred ancestral energies are understood to exist in the forms of these traditional designs, and rendering the designs gives them life. These are sacred ceremonies of great power, almost always practised within the sanctity of Buddhist temples.

To the person making the mandala, there is a profound sense of identification with the principles of the mandala. They enter into the form and directly experience its effects. The 'T' shapes on the sides of the central square indicate places of entry into the core of the mandala, while the particular qualities of the shape also serve to help guard the inner sanctum of knowledge held in that center.

Although the effect of the Tibetan mandala ritual is experienced internally by each participant, it is practised within a religious context common to the whole culture, and the enlightenment which is the goal of Tibetan Buddhism is not an individual goal but one dedicated to the benefit of all humanity. When the ritual is complete, the powdered sand, which is believed to be impregnated with the divine, is poured into running water to disperse its blessings to all.

Many contemporary indigenous artists continue to produce the traditional forms I’ve discussed here, while others are experimenting with different forms and/or materials. However, the innate spirituality and purposeful nature of the ancient forms are almost inevitably present- at some level- even in the less traditional work. Sometimes this content disturbs the boundary between politics and art, making images that assert indigenous peoples and their values in the face of a world that is often hostile and/or indifferent to them.

The 1989 Magicians de la Terre exhibition which was shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris showcased art from cultures all over the world; current examples of both traditional & contemporary art from indigenous peoples were exhibited next to urban western art. Much of the western artwork was clearly influenced by the beauty and power of the ancient images. It is ironic that all three of the cultures we've been discussing here- Native Americans, Tibetans & Australian Aboriginals- are groups whose worlds are particularly threatened by the world that we as westerners inhabit. In order for us to develop a more ethical and responsible position towards these indigenous cultures, as well as create more rewarding art practices in our own, we need to go beyond being inspired by the aesthetics of their art. This means not just picking and choosing pleasant aspects of other cultures to incorporate into our own, but it is a matter of respect, and beginning to recognise we have something important to learn from these perspectives on life and art, and iving in harmony with the environment which are so different from our own.


Reading List:

Native American Culture & Navajo Sandpainting-
Native American Expressive Culture (A Collection of articles and photographs of contemporary native art from the Akwe:kon Journal)

Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings, by Gladys Reichard- Dover Publications: 1977

Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant, by Franc Newcomb & Gladys Reichard, Dover Publications:1975

Aboriginal Art & Culture-
Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, by Robert Lawlor- Inner Traditions:1991

Aboriginal Art, by Willie Caruana- Thames & Hudson: 1993

Action for Aboriginal Rights- PO Box 300, Malvern, 3144, Victoria, Australia Web Site:

A Cultural History of Tibet, by D. Snellgrove & H. Richardson- Shambala:1995

Sacred Tibet, by Philip Rawson- Thames & Hudson: 1991

Conversations Before the End of Time: Dialogues on Art, Life & Spiritual Renewal, by Suzi Gablik- Thames & Hudson: 1995

The Reenchantment of Art, by Suzi Gablik Thames & Hudson:1991

Overlay: Contemporary Art & the Art of Pre-history, by Lucy Lippard- The New Press:1983

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, by Mircea Eliade- Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovitch: 1959

Mandala, by Jose & Miriam Arguelles- Shambala: 1985

Man & His Symbols, by Carl G. Jung- Arkana: 1964