Ramadan markets all over the Emirates are replete with artists etching intricate patterns on the hands and feet using henna or mehendi. The earthy paste made from the leaves of the lawsonia inermis plant, has been around for thousands of years in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. There also exists archaeological evidence of ancient Egyptians using henna to paint the hair and nails of the deceased before embalming them.
Today, henna remains popular as a natural hair colour for both men and women, and to draw ornamental patterns on women especially during weddings, festivals and religious ceremonies.
While floral and paisley patterns are the most common, several henna artists are giving the ancient art a modern makeover.
Here are five to know.
Azra Khamissa, a Canadian-South African chiropractor with Indian roots, can be credited for revolutionising henna design in the UAE by bringing minimalist designs, simple geometric shapes and line drawings into the mix. She takes her cues from Arabian motifs, with creations such as desert landscapes and half-moons, as well as weaving flags, leopard prints, brush-stoked dots, crossword-style checkered squares and sinuous snakes together on the palm and fingers.
Khamissa, who has collaborated with Gucci, Fendi and adidas, says henna has the power to bring women together. For example, when she posted an image on Instagram with an “N” on her left palm and “O” on her right, she found it was interpreted in many different ways, especially in the context of the Me Too movement.
More information can be found on her Instagram account @dr.azra
Prabhleen Kaur, a visual artist and textile designer from India, finds inspiration in her surroundings in Delhi for her offbeat henna designs: think folk art, old textiles and indigenous flora and fauna.
She employs these to create minimalist and symmetrical patterns that strike a middle ground between the design details and empty space. One design shows figs with their leaves extending from the palm to the fingers, while another has but a single pomegranate flower in the centre of each foot. Elsewhere, wavy swirls mirror the pattern on the pair of green Crocs she is wearing, while a henna art heron is her way of celebrating World Heritage Day.
Prabhleen says she is inspired by traditional henna artists, who drew using sticks or their hands rather than modern-day cones. As such, past patterns were more simple and geometric dots and lines were inspired by nature and tribal motifs.
“For me, henna is a medium more than a style. It's an earthy, tangible thing, natural and cooling and not gender-specific,” she says. “I find the medium versatile but very underrated, especially the indigenous henna art created by women in rural areas.”
More information can be found on her Instagram account @thesologirl
Sara Vazir, a salon owner and henna artist from Hong Kong who has teams in the Middle East and South-East Asia, is one to turn to for pop culture-inspired patterns. Sara’s Henna offers themed designs (everything from Harry Potter and Star Wars to Shah Rukh Khan), and travel-inspired art such as snow-covered mountains.
Vazir also offers more traditional patterns, such as the arches and minarets found in Islamic architecture, and even the bride and beturbaned groom popular among desi brides in the early noughties.
“I used to watch my mom and grandmom apply henna from a very young age. Henna runs in my genes; I’ve been applying it for as long as I can remember and worked with my first bride was when I was 11,” she says. “Travel and nature are my main influences, but I also get inspired by people. I love interacting with different people; their vibe and their unique stories allow me to create bespoke designs.”
More information can be found on her Instagram account @sarashenna
UAE henna artist Amreen Wahid’s style is dominated by delicate designs etched out against plenty of white space, which lends her work a contemporary feel. Her go-to patterns include sunflowers, crescent moons, stars and planets sprinkled along the hands and fingers.
“I have loved drawing since I was a child,” she says. "My aunt and sisters practised henna art as their full-time job and I learnt alongside them. My inspiration comes from the magic to be found in gardens and vintage floral designs, and I love weaving in butterflies, stars and little hearts in to make it look like a happy hand."
More information can be found on her Instagram account @girly.henna
Sarah Walters, a data analytics executive from Seattle, discovered henna in 2008. She uses the art form to empower cancer patients who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy or those who have alopecia, and offers her services free of charge.
Walters designs “henna crowns that make them feel beautiful”, as an alternative to wearing wigs and scarves. The boho-chic crowns play out as origami-inspired cherry blossom patterns, paper cranes and brain phrenology maps. She also makes henna designs on pregnant bellies to help to-be mums celebrate their journey into motherhood.
More information can be found on her Instagram account @sarahennaseattle
- Henna mixed with chemicals may produce an adverse reaction, so opt for natural ingredients or get a patch test done