Henna is one of the oldest art forms in the world. The application of henna on the skin – Mehandi, or Mehndi – dates back as far as 6000 years, according to Vogue India, and cave paintings made using the substance have been found that suggest a timescale even longer than that. There are few cultural traditions with such longevity and as much universal appeal, with the art beginning in the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, and Africa yet taking hold across the world. While in the west it can be easy to view henna use as a simple and attractive form of body art, it actually has a far deeper cultural impact, through art and more.
Henna can be wonderfully complex, but it can also be simple and geometrical. This makes it relatively easy for beginners to get into; a butterfly design, for instance, sitting within a pleasant garden made of swirling lines, is a common pursuit, as are mandalas and other concentric designs. This simplicity has a deep historical relevance. According to the Pitt Rivers Virtual Collection, the University of Oxford, henna has long been a liberating measure for women; a way to provide a degree of freedom, and to make the most out of the limited amount of customization that traditional dress could provide.
Telling a story
Through this, henna has told a long-standing cultural tale. One of the most prolific henna artists in the world, and a henna artist to the stars, is Neha Assar. According to NBC, she has applied henna to roughly 1,000 brides – the most common recipient of henna, according to Middle Eastern cultural tradition. According to Assar, her process involves speaking to the bride about her life and her relationship; it forms part of the story the henna tells, which is painted through meditation in a way. This is a common story in the henna legend, and something crucial; it’s not a random design, it’s an art form that tells a long history.
Not just designs
Henna use varies across the world. According to The Smithsonian, Egyptian women would use henna to dye their skin entirely; their hands would be just a shade darker, and the paste was used to cool them. In India, and particularly South India, designs are simple and reflect a holistic living; simple circles, and caps on the fingers. India is where the art becomes even more diversified. While South India sees simple designs and processing, the symbolic ‘capital’ of Henna, Madhya Pradesh (in Central India) prizes intricacy and even harvesting. The Rajasthani families of Madhya Pradesh save the fruit throughout the year, developing its colour further, with darker colours set to be indicative of a stronger marriage.
There are countless variations on this theme from Iran, to Algeria, to India, to Bangladesh. Henna tells a long and complex cultural history that few art forms can assail. Fighting back against appropriation, and keeping the spiritual and cultural tradition alive, is key.