South Africa's sandscribe – Van der Merwe, 49, started designing these intricate pieces at beaches around Cape Town as a means of getting away from his desk. He explains: "When you work as a calligrapher, you sit at a desk and you sit with a small piece of paper in front of you and you channel all your energy through a nib onto a tiny little piece of paper.
"When I was younger, that did it for me, but I began to feel a bit frustrated and getting out on to the beach and using your whole body in an energetic way to do your calligraphy is really refreshing for me."
While he started by using sticks to dig out the patterns, soon Van der Merwe started developing specialized tools for his hobby, including modified buckets and shovels. He also began fashioning footprint-free sandals by attaching flat, wooden paddles to his shoes so as not to leave a mark on his elaborate designs in the sand. "It's quite strenuous. If I work with one of my bigger tools, it pulls out easily up to two kgs of sand at a time," he adds.
South Africa's sandscribe – Van der Merwe mixes up the styles he sculpts on the beach. Some are pattern work while others are asemic -- or meaningless -- designs heavily influenced by writing systems from the continent.
"I took an interest in African writing systems but I'm not a paleontologist or a linguist. And there's no way I'm going to be learning all these languages. I'm a calligrapher so I'm interested in their forms. I think what started it is the Tifinagh, a North African writing system of the Tuareg people. They have always been fiercely independent -- they resisted Islamic imperialism, they've always kept their own writing system in small pockets. And when I looked at it, I went 'Gosh! that looks like Phoenician or ancient Greek,' and that was very interesting because there is a connection between this North African writing system and Phoenician if you study their forms. And I just started playing with those forms, carving them on the beach."
South Africa's sandscribe – The natural environment is an important theme for the calligrapher. He often enjoys playing with the relationship between the sun and water, as pictured here at the Kleinrivier river mouth -- meaning "Small river" in Afrikaans -- in Hermanus, near Cape Town.
Van der Merwe says the asemic nature of his work means that he can take the African writing influences he has become so passionate about and combine them with traditions present from the West's writing systems. He adds: "I play with it, I break it, join it, adapt it, which is entertaining to me, it's a nice challenge. It's like playing with a musical theme. If you look at asemic writing on the beach, there's a musicality to it -- there is a rhythm and a logic.
"Sometimes what I do is I borrow from those forms and adapt western writing letter forms. It's a hybrid of the two, like what Paul Simon did with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, borrowing from African music."
South Africa's sandscribe – The designs of this piece were strongly-influenced by the Adinkra icons of the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Van der Merwe explains that the symbols convey a variety of things from objects, phrases and historical events as opposed to pictographic icons like Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Elaborating on how West African writing systems have captured his imagination, he says: "They are wonderfully anthropomorphic in their forms. All the little letters look like little people doing things. I started playing with that as well."
South Africa's sandscribe – Here the calligrapher highlights the importance of relationships by writing the Zulu proverb: "Umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu" which translates as "a person is a person through the people."
South Africa's sandscribe – A sand piece by Van der Merwe entitled "African calligrapher, me" carved on Witsands beach, Cape Town in January 2011. Explaining his thoughts behind the piece on his website, he writes: "It is a self-portrait, the quill-wielding, running figure at the Southern tip of Africa being the way I see myself in happier moments. All those other fantastical, interlocking and interconnected letters and symbols -- many of which come from African writing systems -- represent the way I, as a white South African, see Africa with all it's incredible diversity and liveliness, but especially all those indigenous languages who's sounds and forms I so love but do not understand."
Writing in the sand – On the fleeting, transitory nature of his work, Van der Merwe concludes: "When you visit a museum, you don't walk away with the art on the walls, you walk away with a memory. So the beach calligraphy creates an experience for me. And it can be a very meditative process."