UAE artists give ancient art of henna a modern twist

The multipurpose ingredient has maintained its presence in different forms

Henna artist Azra Khamisssa paints a trainer at her residence in Dubai. Reuters
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Sprouting from the desert sand amid warm temperatures, a small tree with green leaves has been an ancient treasured tradition across many cultures.

A multipurpose ingredient serving as a beauty ornament, hair dye and medical treatment, henna has maintained its presence, even in today's changing world.

Around 100km away from Dubai, Moza Ahmed Al Abduli harvests the leaves of a henna tree at her daughter's home in Ras Al Khaimah.

“This is the henna tree, it grows in the UAE and Oman,” says Al Abduli, 62. “It comes from these henna seeds, which we can smell during the morning when there is humidity or fog. It smells the same as the henna [paste]. We then take these leaves one by one and keep them in the shade, so the colour doesn't change.”

UAE's ancient art of henna is gaining a modern twist

UAE's ancient art of henna is gaining a modern twist

Taking the leaves back to her home, Al Abduli is one of the few who still make homemade traditional henna paste.

Grinding, sifting and mixing with lemon water, Al Abduli prepares the henna paste recipe, which is traditionally used on special occasions such as weddings and Eid.

“Henna is a way for women to adorn themselves. Whether it is during Eid, or when there is an occasion or when they are invited out with their friends, henna is a decoration,” says Al Abduli.

“The origin [of henna] comes from here, but what they added to [henna nowadays] is petrol to turn it black, as well as using other ways for it to come out black.”

Incorporating her henna designs with fashion and reintroducing it to the younger generation, artist Azra Khamissa is giving the ancient art a modern look.

Inspired by linear and minimalist designs, the artist, who started off as a chiropractor, uses hands and even trainers as her canvasses.

“Girls are looking for things that are a lot more minimal in general. For many of them henna is new to them, so they want to kind of start slow, which is completely understandable,” says Khamissa, who has collaborated with adidas and Ebel Watches to include henna designs on their products.

“That is how I started. And later on once they become more familiar and more accustomed to it, they will start experimenting a bit more.”

Using her very own natural henna labelled Azra, the young artist's designs help women communicate their different styles and traditions, but with a modern twist.

“Unfortunately a lot of us have become quite disconnected with our traditions, but I would say girls these days are looking for designs that kind of speak to them a little bit more in terms of their style and how they dress and the places they go to,” she says.

“The traditional designs, although they are great for weddings and for Eid, for many girls it wasn't really sitting well, so the modern designs are something that they are happy to wear beyond these occasions.”

Last year, the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi collaborated with the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, as well as the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation to nominate the traditional practice of henna art for inclusion in Unesco's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The three government institutions hosted representatives from 16 Arab countries this month to discuss the nomination.

“The UAE attaches great importance to highlighting the practices of our Emirati identity and showcasing them to the world,” said Mubarak Al Nakhi, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture and Youth.

“The inclusion of this element of our heritage on Unesco's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage is an important step in highlighting the role of henna in our Arab and Gulf culture and identity, which is shared by many other cultures of the world.”

Updated: April 10, 2023, 4:06 PM