Although it has ancient roots, sand animation is a relatively new art with only a handful of professionals around the globe. We meet two UAE sand animation artists.
The UAE's sand animation masters
Despite their obvious differences, Shayma Ahmed Al Mughairy and Luc Marin have one thing in common. She is a petite teenager from Oman who grew up in the sleepy emirate of Umm Al Quwain and is still at university; he is a slightly eccentric and outgoing Frenchman who is a father of two and a highly accomplished graphic designer, but their shared interest and professional practice is the art of sand animation.
Using a light box as a kind of canvas, sand animation is when an artist uses his fingers and the steady stream of sand flowing from a loosely clenched fist to create images. Just as the sands in the desert constantly shift, the real talent with sand animation is that the artist melds one image into the next so that when set to music and projected onto a large screen, the performance is more like a short silent film than a piece of static art.
Although Marin is trained in fine arts and Al Mughairy is completely self-taught, both agree that the desert sand from the UAE is the best sand for their work.
"It is so fine it is like powder," says Marin. "When I first started, I just used sand from my garden and then later I collected it from the desert. Once I went to Arcachon, in south-west France where I am from, and I took some sand but it was too heavy and it bounced. The UAE has the ideal sand."
Marin is a graphic designer by trade and stumbled upon sand animation six years ago when his wife Elsie, who runs an events company, persuaded him to try it.
"For me, I love to draw. I am always drawing so it was quite easy for me to pick it up. The main difference is that you have to think about shape only, not colour. You only have white or sepia and shading takes too long so you have to take care of the shape."
When he takes to the stage with the sand animation, usually Marin is performing for a client so the story he tells has already been preapproved and can sometimes be more static than if he were given full creative freedom. Nevertheless, his creativity shines through and in a 10-minute show, he will complete 10 drawings that are usually linked into a sequence.
The outline of the globe, for example, turns into the circular motion of the pilgrims in Mecca and then they morph into the pyramids of Egypt as he takes us on a tour of the region's most iconic landmarks. The spike of the Burj Khalifa is also another favourite that he effortlessly traces.
"The UAE grew from the sand and I tell all my stories with its sand so it gives a new dimension," he says. "It is also a live medium, not like a pen or pencil, and it holds a lot of emotion."
For Al Mughairy, this was one of the main reasons she became attracted to the art in the first place.
"Our culture is based in the desert so we have a deep relationship with the sand and that is why I liked it," she explains. "When I started to work and try different sands, I realised that desert sand here is very pure and soft, it is like a powder.
"Once I tried the sand from Qatar but it was too hard and I couldn't do it. The UAE sand is the best."
Al Mughairy works a little differently from Marin. While he took to the art easily given his fine arts training, Al Mughairy was only 12 when she first started and she still practises up to three hours a day to master the difficult technique of controlling the fine material and capturing the fluid motions needed to put on a successful performance.
"I actually wished there was someone to teach me at the beginning, but there is nobody in the whole Gulf. I had to learn by first drawing with a pencil and then later tracing it with sand. Now I can imagine the pictures in my mind before I draw them with sand."
Although the first instances of drawing with sand can be traced back to tribes in the South Pacific ocean that had a ritual of sand drawing, the modern interpretation of sand animation done on a glass table lit from underneath is relatively new. There are only a handful of famous sand artists in the world including Ilana Yahav, an Israeli woman who studied the art in the US and the UK and Su Dabao from China. In 2009, Kseniya Simonova, a young Ukrainian, won a national talent competition for her sand animation and brought her country international acclaim with her YouTube video of the German Nazi's invasion of Ukraine during the Second World War gathering more than 14 million views.
Al Mughairy, too, gained much exposure when she reached the final of Arabs Got Talent in 2011 and she hopes to take the art to much wider audiences.
"I don't want to stop," she says. "I want to establish the first sand art school in the Gulf and the first sand art gallery. My mother always told me nothing is impossible and I live by that."
See more of Shayma Ahmed Al Mughairy's work on her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ shaymaalmughairy
Luc Marin is available on www.sandartist.ae
With additional reporting by Mai El Shoush
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