Modernising nail henna art, a beauty custom with cultural roots

Known globally for her non-traditional designs, Azra Khamissa has launched a tea-based creation

Artist Azra Khamissa creates nail henna from tea to achieve deeper pigmentation. Photo: Azra
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The idea of henna on nails usually conjures up images of endearingly wrinkled fingers of South Asian grannies, most with uneven orange stains.

But henna artist Azra Khamissa's refined and sophisticated take on the ancient art form, is gaining her global recognition.

Khamissa's nail henna stains come in a deep, rich, reddish pigment – rather than murky orange hues. This is partly because there’s no real henna in this product.

“It’s actually made from tea,” she tells The National. “Henna itself will dye your nails orange, whereas nail henna comes out as a beautiful, deep red that resembles black tea.”

A chiropractor and handbag designer, Khamissa's designs, which range from romantic and poetic to abstract and avant-garde, has led her to collaborate with brands including Les Benjamins, adidas and Puma.

She also makes henna stencil sticker packs for aspiring artists, which she sells under her brand Azra. Currently, her best-selling designs include the Palestine-themed tatreez and Falastin stencils, for those who want to make a statement of solidarity by way of their body art.

Her designs don’t stop at the skin. She has experimented with touches of henna, such as dots or French tips, on the fingernails, which is what led to her latest release.

“Many people would ask how to do it; they were so curious and that’s what inspired me to launch nail henna,” she says.

Khamissa noticed that there was no nail henna accessible in the mainstream market. Sure enough, a quick search of the web for “nail henna” provides results of regular cones (used for the skin), as well as a few formulas bottled to resemble nail polish.

The tea-infused technique, Khamissa explains “beautifies the nails without harming them. Nail polish and gel can damage the nails and nail bed as they don’t allow your nails to breathe. You can also see any dirt that might collect under your nails, which you can’t with polish, so it’s healthier, cleaner and more hygienic.”

Applying henna on the nails is a beauty ritual symbolising wealth and status, dating back to ancient Egypt – Queen Cleopatra was known to dye hers. In India and Africa, henna has been traditionally used to dye the fingertips. A similar ancient Korean beauty regimen involves making a paste out of balsam flowers to give the fingernails a tangerine-toned tint. These cultural practices from the East are all predecessors to modern-day nail polish.

Some Muslim women opt to colour their nails with henna, as it is seen to be a halal adornment. Many view polish as a barrier that prevents water from reaching the fingernails during ablution, or the ritual stage of washing before prayer, and therefore believe that it can invalidate prayer. Khamissa points out that because henna merely dyes the surface, allowing water to touch the nail, it can be used as an alternative.

Trending beauty practices – such as the “clean girl” aesthetic – show women are increasingly seeking healthy, sustainable and natural products. Khamissa’s innovative nail henna, with its cultural roots and numerous benefits, also speaks to these motivations, and might attract those who would have never previously considered using a hennalike substance on their nails.

Khamissa also says she didn't previously use henna on her own fingernails as she personally didn’t like the traditional, orange-hued look. When henna is applied on the nails, the resulting murky, ombre effect naturally occurs because it permeates the area near the cuticle more easily than the fingertip area – though with regular application, the stain evens out.

The tea-infused take on the dye has a more modern look, and she says its deeper pigment and precision when squeezed from a narrow cone gives users an artistic edge when etching out patterns.

While minimalist designs may be her forte, Khamissa is confident her customers will push boundaries with nail henna – especially during the upcoming month of Ramadan, which is often thought of as “henna season” for practitioners of the craft.

“Design and creativity come into play with everything that you do, with all forms of beauty,” she says. “I look forward to seeing how far the girls take it, because they always surprise me with their creativity and show me different things that I didn’t know could be done.”

Updated: January 29, 2024, 9:13 AM