Sculpting sand

All people do it when they’re on a beach: building sand castles. Apparently the ancient Egyptians were already making sand models of their tombs some centuries ago. In Pêra, however, they don’t bother with mere castles or pyramids. Instead, artists have transformed billions of grains of sand into the likes of The Beatles, Lady Gaga, and Bob Marley.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2015

The attention to detail is enormous; the eyes of Portuguese singer Tony Carreira seem to be looking straight at you and even the whiskers of Mozart’s cat are clearly visible from behind the barriers. Walk around the annual International Sand Sculpture Festival (aka FIESA) and you’re transported to different musical eras; there’s everything from the soundtrack of Titanic and the Monster of Frankenstein to fado and Chinese opera – all made of sand.

Sounds familiar? Yes, FIESA’s 2015 theme is ‘music’ again. As the festival will be moving to a different location next year (don’t worry, it’ll stay in the Algarve), not much has changed compared to last year’s exhibition. Still, it’s well worth a visit, even if you’ve been before. (Did you visit during day time in 2014? Be sure to go at night this season and watch the pieces all lit up).

Picture by FIESA


Normally, every year the whole exhibition of up to 77 sculptures is built in just two weeks. An international team of 80 people works together to create the pieces, working from top to bottom and using 40,000 tonnes of sand in the process. “It takes a professional sand sculptor two days to do the head and upper body of -for example- Elvis,” Cristina Araújo, one of the organisers of FIESA, says. “Then afterwards somebody who isn’t that specialised will help with the base.”

Cristina herself came to the Algarve in 2003 to participate in the festival; she intended to stay for only two weeks, but still lives here today, in Vale de Parra (Albufeira). Like many of the artists, she has a background in sculpting, having previously worked with clay, plaster, fiberglass and sponge. The transition to sand was a logical one. “It’s easy material to work with once you understand the concept of the three dimensions. After it has been compressed, you carve it the same way you’d carve stone, by cutting and shaping.” The sculptures certainly feel rock solid and make you wonder if the barriers are there for the protection of the art, or the public? “They’re there so you don’t kick the sand, because if you do, you’ll hurt your feet,” Cristina laughs.

Picture by Marijke Verschuren


The exhibition is an open air event, but rain or wind isn’t a problem when the compressed sand is thoroughly dry (also, all sculptures are sprayed with a special protection solution). However, during the 2008 Hollywood exhibition, a whole night of drizzling after the building was just finished resulted in a near complete collapse that had to be restored in record time. At the time of visiting (late April), there were also bits influenced by the weather. A plant was growing from Bob Marley’s left trouser leg. Half a nose here, a broken piece of a hat there and Beethoven was missing part of his shawl. All this will be fixed in June though, after most rain has stopped, Christina ensures us as she climbs on the statue of Zeca Afonso in order to give the face of the political singer a touch up.

When visiting, look for the Virgin Mary, a leftover from the 2006 mythology exhibition. In the spring of 2007 the guy who was supposed to tear down all sculptures with a digger didn’t want to decapitate the Virgin, so he shovelled the excavator bucket through her waistline instead. The bust tumbled down the sand mountain and reached the ground completely intact, hands still folded in a prayer. The organisation then decided to preserve the sculpture of Mary. (She’s now kept close to the bar area – ask a member of the FIESA team to point it out to you, they’ll happily oblige).

Normally though, all pieces get destroyed. In October, the sand will be taken to the new venue and reused there to create different sculptures. Don’t the artists mind that their work has such a temporary life? Not at all, Cristina asserts. On the contrary: this recycling is the reason she works at FIESA. “In a previous job I was making stage props. All these products were thrown away directly after use. So there I was, actually creating garbage. Also, I worked with toxic products, which aren’t good for your health. Here, all we use is sand and water. For me, key is that you can make over a 1000 objects with the same matter, which is very ecological. Sand sculpting is transforming, rather than creating something new.”

Picture by Marijke Verschuren

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2015

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