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Henna Reinvented: How the Art Form is Being Redefined in the Modern World


Henna by Azra Khamissa. Courtesy of Azra Khamissa

Since ancient times – think back to the Pharaohs – the art of henna has been practiced across the globe for cultural and religious purposes. Once applied with a stick, the practice now sees artists using plastic cones filled with the substance – a red, thick paste, owning an earthy smell, is derived from a crushed henna plant. It is applied to women’s skin and hair for ceremonies. After it dries, the excess paste is brushed off. Over the following days, the dye becomes reddish brown and can last for up to four weeks.

Working freehand, artists design different patterns as favored by varying regions. In the Middle East, the designs are abstract. They feature large floral and vine motifs drawn less densely than preferred in other cultures. In India, paisley patterns are favored, where thin lines and dots can cover hands, forearms, shins, and feet. In North Africa, women prefer bold designs with abstract symbols meeting large geometric shapes. Lately, non-traditional motifs are featuring all of the above and more, from crescent moons to TV sets, as seen on Instagram feeds by the thousands. Decorating the body with this paste has been transformed and adapted by Western cultures, too.

If the art of henna is on the rise, and moving into the mainstream, the world of celebrity and fashion has been a driving force – via social media. “Traditional henna designs have evolved,” explains Amrin Wahid, a UAE-based henna designer with a million followers on Instagram. “Space and placement represent the most significant changes in tradition for contemporary henna designs. We can choose drawings to match our clothing and wear it as “jewelry’ with dresses.” The traditional henna color has also shifted, with Wahid creating motifs in gold and white, working with body paint instead of the traditional plant-based formula.

Pop culture embraced henna during the 90s when music artists like Madonna and Gwen Stefani showcased designs. Decorated with traditional henna, they wore it as a fashion statement on red carpets and in music videos. It wasn’t until 2013 when it really hit the spotlight after celebrity tattoo artists Keith McCurdy and Cally Jo, from Bang Bang Tattoo NYC, inked a henna-inspired tattoo onto Rihanna’s right hand, inspiring many to copy the look. Matching a preexisting Maori jewelry piece, the design took five hours to create.

Henna artist Deepali Deshpande of Glory of Henna, LA, who calls Pia Mia and Shay Mitchell clients, says: “They all love the cultural significance of henna as well as its beauty.” Proving her point she reminds us of her most famous work – a collaboration with Beyoncé for the baby shower of her twins last year. Creating an intricate diamond-shaped design in classic brown henna drawn on her swollen stomach, she reworked an ancient North African practice in a modern way. Used for rites of passage ceremonies, in the past, the custom would have seen the design placed on the woman’s hands and feet during the third trimester of the pregnancy, and beyond. Believed to symbolize a safe birth, other cultures, from the Middle East to India, soon adopted the practice and began to also adorn the belly of pregnant women with henna.

As more cultures adopt this practice, the question of cultural appropriation arises. One search on Google displays over 100,000 results debating this. “I love seeing henna being used and appreciated in the west and around the world,” explains Dubai-based designer and practicing Muslim Azra Khamissa. Experiencing the art since she was a child for weddings and Eid, she says: “I don’t see it as appropriation but rather as appreciation. The women in the west who I’ve seen practice it, have such a love for the art of henna.”

In the world of fashion, Spring 2018 saw designer Antonio Berardi collaborate with Pavan Dhanjal of Pavan Henna Bar. With a global brand boasting outlets across the world, including London, New York, Milan, Paris, and Dubai, Dhanjal is also a Guinness World Record holder for being the world’s fastest henna artist – having tattooed 511 armbands in one hour. She also holds a British Empire Medal for Services to Beauty that was awarded to her this year. Creating bespoke designs for Berardi, she worked with glittering silver, white, and black hues. “We used our signature white henna that lasts on the skin for 24-hours, and our ready-to-use henna pens, which have just launched. They are used like a pen to create any design you like, and wash off very easily,” she explained at the show. She added that the black designs were inspired by Rihanna’s hand tattoos.

“People prefer henna tattoos since they are a natural way to dye your skin and not permanent,” explains Deshpande on how the trend is being carried off the runway. “They are hungry for real experiences,” adds New York City-based henna artist and author Lisa Butterworth of Kenzi. After living in the Western Sahara, where she came across the art in 1998, she began practicing henna. “The increased desire for henna is an outgrowth of our mass-produced, digital culture,” she adds. Ease of digital communication and travel mean beauty enthusiasts are inspired more so than ever to try the art for themselves.

The continuous adaptation and endless possibilities that henna offer suggest that the art is only set to become increasingly commonplace in both the worlds of beauty and tradition. With henna artists sharing their skills across various platforms now more than ever, more and more people are taking note. Proving it can adapt and hold onto its roots, henna has well and truly established its staying power.

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