“Not your mom’s henna” is how an invitation from Puma Middle East describes the work of henna artist Azra Khamissa, who has become an Instagram sensation for her non-traditional approach to this traditional design form.
A refreshed craze for henna is emerging among millennials, who are eschewing the busy, paisley- and flower-filled designs usually reserved for South Asian and Middle Eastern brides, in favour of more abstract, minimalist designs that correlate to contemporary style trends. Leading this new-age cultural movement in the UAE is Khamissa, who goes by the moniker “Dr Azra” on social media.
While Khamissa’s personal style is emulative of trendy Emirati fashion, her background is Canadian-South African. “We came here when I was 12 and moved straight to Jumeirah, where my father opened a clinic. It was a fresh start in a new country, and I went to an Arabic school behind Mercato Mall,” she says. “We’re Muslim, I was covering, and we started adapting to Emirati culture.”
More than a decade later, Khamissa has used her adopted home to help create a henna subculture that has inspired artists across the globe to approach the age-old art with a fresh set of eyes. A chiropractor and handbag designer, Khamissa stumbled into henna design somewhat by accident, when she experimented with an Emirati design on her hand the same weekend she was scheduled to shoot her handbag collection with photographer Cheb Moha.
"We were waiting for the model to get there, so we just took a photo of the henna with a camel, and the picture was so cool – it ended up getting featured in ID Magazine," Khamissa tells The National.
Like many women from the East, Khamissa’s childhood experiences with henna were limited to weddings and Eid, when it is customary to decorate the hands with the earthy, plant-based paste. But that tradition did not outlast her childhood.
“When it comes to those traditional designs, they never really worked for me and my aesthetic, and a lot of girls obviously feel the same way, that it is only for brides,” she says. Khamissa’s approach to henna, much like the one she takes with her handbag designs, is more minimalist and experimental, and celebrates the art year-round.
Her latest designs range from a scatter of 25 hearts drawn across the hand, to large, wispy flowers stemming from the fingers and ending at the wrist, complete with a snail and dragonfly. Elsewhere, a star sits in the centre of the palm, with thin lines connecting the points to the edges of the hand and fingertips, or the phases of the moon laid out in a line, beginning at the top of middle finger and ending a few inches below the wrist.
“When I first started with the handbags and the henna, it was a very clean kind of aesthetic, but I have been exploring now with more playful and experimental work,” she says.
Khamissa’s job as a chiropractor greatly influences her work, especially her use of lines. “I look at the hand as a whole, so I use the joints and the different planes, and try to incorporate the whole hand in the design,” she says.
Some of her patterns, particularly those created in collaboration with photographer Mous Lamrabat, are deeply conceptual – a photo of a pair of hands, covered in the distinctive McDonald’s “M”, in front of the face in the gesture of prayer, is captioned “Praying for a healthier world”.
Khamissa says rather than only serving beautifying purposes, henna can be used to convey messages that are deep and effective, much like tattoos.
“It’s a way of expressing how you feel, and it’s also a great tool for Muslims who cannot or do not want to get a tattoo. Tattoos are a great way to express in general; many have deep meanings, and henna can be the same,” she says.
In fact, Khamissa’s aesthetic – contemporary and edgy – has more in common with tattoos than with traditional henna, which is why Puma recruited her for a collection launch in March, where she worked on the hands of guests in a makeshift tattoo parlour – an exciting prospect for Khamissa, who points out that conventional tattoo parlours are not allowed in the UAE. “While there are henna salons here, they look and feel nothing like a tattoo parlour, and that is the vibe and energy I tried to [achieve]”, she says.
After a month spent fasting, praying and social distancing, henna can serve as a positive pick-me-up for those seeking the festive Eid spirit, and Khamissa has recently launched her own Azra-branded henna cone, in time for the holiday. Made in Dubai, the henna is non-toxic and comes in a biodegradable plastic casing. Each cone costs Dh20, and delivery is available across the UAE.
Khamissa’s mission to make henna cool is attracting attention, in addition to helping millennial women rethink the cultural practice, and make it their own, regardless of where they are from.
She believes that henna can also help third-culture residents or long-term expatriates, connect with their cultures. “My great-grandparents are Indian and it is definitely within their culture, and henna is a deep part of the Emirati culture. I’m very detached from my culture – my parents were brought up in South Africa, I was brought up in Canada and Dubai, but henna is one thing that I find connects so many different cultures together,” says Khamissa.
“It’s like an accessory, and it is something that is natural, and something that is our own – no single culture owns henna; it is just a plant.”