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A sand artist tells stories using sand

A sand artist tells stories using sand

Sometimes things can be created through the act of destruction, perhaps it sounds strange, but with Winta Assefa, a sand animator, that is how it is.

Winta is a 22 year old sand artist who creates dynamic narratives by manipulating tiny grains of sand into vivid images and scenes.

She usually performs her art in a darkened room. She lights a glass table from underneath; the glowing table would be her canvas, and her fingers, the brush. She pours steady streams of sand on the table with a loosely clenched fist. Running her fingers through soft sand and guiding the tiny specks into recognizable images.

Then, with a sudden wipe, her piece becomes a blank canvas again. Piece after piece, frame by frame, the images add up to a coherent storyline that packs a dynamic narrative. So when performed, her live sand-drawing, becomes more like a short film than a piece of static art. And the storytelling makes life and time flow by, right before your eyes.

Winta creates these fluid illustrations from memory. Majority of her arts are seen on her YouTube posts, or social media. But sometimes, she performs for live audiences, with an overhead camera instantaneously projecting a video onto a large screen for the audience to see.

Her performances are choreographed, and synched to a soundscape, which she chooses or compose to enhance the mood.  The process and her hands look like they are following the rhythm. But, at the end of the performance, this artist winds up with no artwork. This is the creative and destructive nature of sand art. And perhaps that’s what makes it so appealing; its beauty is in its fragility and short-lived nature. 

“Each image requires the destruction of the previous to exist.” Winta explained. Many artists struggle to part with their artworks let alone erase it, but Winta admits she feels on the contrary. “If anything, I enjoy destroying my own work, maybe it’s the metaphor that all will come to null and destruction.”

“I don’t have that possessiveness, with any physical item.  I don’t romanticize sand. It’s a tool for me, it’s a mode of expression, I don’t elevate it to anything more than that.”

And yet many times the destruction isn’t entire, rather it’s a morphing of one form to another. Every so often, her hands transform a heap of sand into a building or a landscape, you will see a young person turning into an adult as Winta skilfully swish and sprinkle specks of sand over the glass topped table to keep the narration going.

As any artist will tell you, there is a technical side to this craft. “I usually use just my hands, I use the edge of my palm to create circles and other geometric shapes, my fingers to create smaller shapes and my fingernails for fine detail.”

In one of her videos titled ‘Dear Mom’, Winta tells the life story of her mother. The setting starts off in Asmara, Eritrea where her mom was born, then takes the audience to Ethiopia through Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Contrasting worlds of tranquillity and chaos are consistently depicted throughout the act coupled with sound effects enhancing the emotions of the story. The emotions are heightened as one is reminded the life struggles of a young girl, who grew up in war, forced into exile then faced xenophobia before moving to Ethiopia to reunite with her husband’s side of the family.

“So far, I try to keep stories as personal as possible, whatever stories I tell,” Winta said, ”People have urged me to do drawings about current affairs, like maybe the Palestinian conflict, or about African empowerment. Something that is probably a noble cause but something I cannot identify with on a deeply personal level. I feel like they are not my story to tell best, yet.”

“For instance, portraying the brokenness of mental health and expression of pain that is not visible is a personal mission for me because mental health has been something that has affected me very personally. “

Born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Winta said she felt like an outcast as the only black/African or Christian child in her surroundings. “I was an outsider on a physical and on a more ambiguous abstract level. That conflict of identity on two levels really affected me because I took many things to heart. I had the need to belong or feel important among my peers.”

“And then, there was the Kafala system, I couldn’t go to school anymore and I barely went out of home. I was home schooled half my life, and in desperate need of the school experience and social interaction. I suffered from mental health problems for several years of my life. Life got even tougher as xenophobia rose up. Life in Saudi Arabia was not an option anymore. I needed the freedom. By the time I was eighteen, I moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.”

“I enjoy telling stories most, especially the little knots, and issues that are tough to explain, perhaps issues like mental health and cultural misunderstandings. I try to break them down into simple sand drawings.”

“I try to do with sand what writing can’t do and vice versa” said Winta, some of her works were published in a couple of newspapers such as Arab NEWS and Saudi Gazette before she started two Telegram Channels ‘Letters to Father’ and ‘Reading Abyssinia’, not just through sand art but with words as well.

“Writing had verged on being an addiction for me at several points in my life. The racketing in my head needed very often, to speak. In Saudi, it was because of the personal frustration I had from not being able to move freely, being kicked out of school, living in a country growing increasingly xenophobic and most of all, my own mental health issues at the time.”

In a world where there are only a handful of famous sand animators, Winta is trying to break out and push forward by finding new mediums.

“There are sand artists all over the world with different geographical contexts, their skills and fame explode for a while before slowly fading away or remain hidden in those pockets. Perhaps it’s because the artists limit the medium by keeping it to themes of nationalism and corporate events, maybe that’s why sand art didn’t explode internationally as it should have.”

“I try to be more flexible, I don’t limit my art to sand. I try to experiment with other mediums like tea, chalk, salt or anything fluid.”

Her stories are in English or Arabic, but her sand drawings transcend linguistic barriers and challenge and motivate her audience in a fascinating way.