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Courtesy of Pavan

Four artists redefining traditional henna body art


TextJessica Canjemanaden

Mriga, Ayqa Khan, Huq That, and Pavan Dhanjal share their personal connections to mehndi and how they’re using it as a means of exciting creative expression

Growing up, mehndi (also known as henna) was something I often saw as traditional and quite alluring because of its intricate process and design. I thought of it as sacred and meaningful, a bond between my family members and I for special occasions. As I got older, I realised mehndi is something that could be used as a form of expression and break barriers between what is traditional and what is art. 

Mehndi can be defined as a form of body art created from the powdered dry leaves of the henna plant. It dates back to ancient India but can also be found in cultures of Africa and the Middle East. It’s been said that Cleopatra used henna to adorn her body, the possibilities and origins are vast. 

Usually, mehndi can be found on the palms and back of one’s hands but doesn’t limit to these parts of the body. It follows an intricate pattern yet not a strict one, often it is left up to the person performing the mehndi. Traditional mehndi designs include paisley, floral, geometric patterns and some use peacock motifs. Henna paste is usually applied using a plastic cone, paintbrush, or stick. When the mud begins to crack lemon juice is usually applied to make the henna appear darker when it dries.

The uses of mehndi vary from body art to more traditional uses like at weddings or Eid. Each culture uses henna in its own way, for example, at Hindu weddings it’s used as a spiritual awakening to symbolise joy and beauty. When I saw my friend Ayqa subverting traditional norms of mehndi and using it as her own outlet of creative expression, I was inspired by those like her in my generation communicating tradition in different ways. 

Here, I talk to four different artists – Mriga, co-founder of NorBlack NorWhite, Ayqa Khan, Huq That, and Pavan Dhanjal – from New York to London to India about how they’re communicating mehndi in their art.

MRIGA (NBNW)

What do you think is the traditional significance of Henna? What role did it play in your life growing up?

Mriga: The most often celebrated henna moments happen during the Mehndi ceremony of Indian weddings. It’s a time when the ladies gathered, sometimes with professional henna artists and sometimes simply family aunties who had a great hand. With a tonne of events that lead up to the main wedding day, the henna ceremony is when the bride is adorned in usually intricate, floral, flowy henna designs. 

Some choose to design the feet and hands but some go all the way up from the feet, ankles and up the legs to the knees, while doing up the palms, full hands, and sometimes even up to the elbows. It’s a cute gathering time with the ladies, lots of pre-wedding gossip and sometimes singing and an earthy scent of henna being dried up and rubbed off often soaked in lemon juice to keep the colour vibrant.

How do you incorporate henna in your creative work? How did you start experimenting with henna in a non-traditional sense? Did anything specific inspire this? 

Mriga: We’ve always appreciated the clean lines and form of hand and feet Alta designs used in classical Indian dance forms. The floral and intricate wedding henna designs have been popularised so much that henna tattoos are now a thing all around the world – I guess we can thank Madonna for that one (or not). Although we respect the intricacies and steadiness of that style of handwork, we are drawn to the clean outline and central circle focal point. 

We were inspired by a friend, Azra based out of Dubai who we saw using henna in the most beautiful, contemporary, fresh ways. We first attempted an ode to our favourite Alta design through a pin we designed in collaboration with PinTrill for ComplexConLA. We then wanted to see if we could translate our favourite classic design into a wearable long sleeve which led to the birth of this Alta shirt. It’s a hand-painted design that eventually got translated into a screen print and then onto the shirt. We felt it would only be appropriate to shoot the shirts in collaboration with Azra herself along with an amazing photographer Gibz who directed and shot beautiful visuals in the Khawaneej date farms outside of Dubai. We wanted to develop images with this talented crew to share the story of henna being a cultural practice that goes beyond religion and borders and how we are all connected to it.

Since using henna in a non-traditional sense, have you received backlash?

Mriga: Not so far. We are celebrating the design and paying respect to it by sharing it in a design form that hopefully people appreciate. So far no backlash but there are always trolls waiting around the corner.

What do you love most about henna? 

Mriga: It’s really special to see how many ways Henna is used throughout cultures spanning from South East Asia to the Arab regions and in parts of Africa. Everyone has their own style, it’s been such a female-focused practice and has been around from time.

AYQA

What do you think is the traditional significance of Henna? What role did it play in your life growing up?

Ayqa: From my understanding, the traditional significance of henna is ceremonial. It’s a ritual that prepares one/a collective to embark into a new journey, a new life change. Marriage, Eid celebrations, baby showers, coming of age etc. I grew up in a beauty salon and when I was young, I looked up to these two sisters, Saba and Sana who were working with my mum at the time. 

They started practising mehndi for customers and I asked them to teach me. I would go to the salon every day and they made templates for me to practice on. I would draw flowers with my own mini cone they would make for me over and over again on paper until they were perfect. I was able to do full bridal henna by the time I was 16. I found some vintage henna books pretty recently in the basement of the salon. Henna is everywhere I go. I consider it a guide.

How do you incorporate henna in your creative work?

Ayqa: I’m interested in the future of henna in a variety of different ways – physically, conceptually, futurity, etc. I made a device for the future called Henna 3000 in which the process of putting henna on is replaced by a machine and lasered onto the skin. It can be read in different ways but I was thinking about the rapid rate of globalisation and assimilation and where the rituals from our ancestors are going.

When I first started drawing and painting in my late teens, I was always drawing floral patterns that poured out of me. They brought much peace and it was very intuitive. Looking back, I realise it was from my earliest sight of these patterns – henna. They hold a lot of power actually – and I’m finally admitting this to myself because it keeps coming back. 

Different regions have their own designs and we all have the power to create our own symbols. Islamic architecture is a big part of the power of shapes, geometry and alignment. I started an ‘alignment’ practice where I started having sessions with friends. We talk together and come up with symbols and imagery to help them feel aligned with something they’re looking towards. I tattoo myself very often. When I’m feeling low, when I’m feeling high, as a reminder of time and direction. 

“I’m interested in the future of henna in a variety of different ways – physically, conceptually, futurity, etc. I made a device for the future called Henna 3000 in which the process of putting henna on is replaced by a machine and lasered onto the skin” – Ayqa

How did you start experimenting with henna in a non-traditional sense? Did anything specific inspire this?

Ayqa: Because I’ve been tattooing people of all ages for so many years, I can say what really pushed me to break free from traditional designs was children. They were always asking for things they wanted like spiders, rainbows, and unicorns. When I started to see this imagery with henna on skin, I began trying new things on myself and slowly other people. Also experimenting with different areas of the body. I love tattooing on the neck, chest, and face.

Since using henna in a non-traditional sense, have you received backlash?

Ayqa: Not really. My family and my mum are sometimes a bit shocked when they see ten butterflies on my arm, but then I encourage them to let me tattoo something from their imagination.

HUQ THAT

What do you think is the traditional significance of Henna? What role did it play in your life growing up?

Huq That: Henna has always been a part of rituals across many cultures, we always enjoyed it during festive celebrations like Eid or weddings. There is something very soothing and healing about the process. 

How do you incorporate henna in your creative work?

Huq That: My creative work is deeply personal and reflective of the journey of how I identify, henna feels like a natural part of that.

How did you start experimenting with henna in a non-traditional sense? Did anything specific inspire this?

Huq That: I have always appreciated henna as art my aim was to express this so others can also see it as an art form and recognise henna artists as artists. I wouldn’t say I’ve experimented in a non-traditional sense I see it as honouring its true nature, It’s a plant which has been adapted and used across millennia in different ways. This is my adaptation to celebrate its magic. 

Since using henna in a non-traditional sense, have you received backlash?

Huq That: The feedback has been really positive. It covers beautiful rituals spanning so many cultures and its story is that of connection. I wanted to create something that was accessible for everyone who appreciated the art of henna.

PAVAN

What do you think is the traditional significance of Henna? What role did it play in your life growing up?

Pavan: The traditional significance of henna for me is for auspicious occasions, anything worth celebrating would always result in having henna applied for an occasion.  It’s a form of make-up that has always been a must for weddings, and then festive occasions, and significant in bringing luck, and colour for those wearing it. 

The background of henna played a big role in my life, not only because it was so important for weddings and auspicious occasions but also because of the background and the link to my cultural roots. It made me proud of my ethnicity and the beauty offering that was and still is a very big part of our beauty regime. My passion for henna gave me the motivation for business and shone light on how our wants are evolving.

How do you incorporate henna in your creative work?

Pavan: I love to add designs on anything and everything, it’s so in me now that I involve it in all creative work without even realising it.

“The background of henna played a big role in my life. It made me proud of my ethnicity and the beauty offering that was and still is a very big part of our beauty regime” – Pavan

How did you start experimenting with henna in a non-traditional sense? Did anything specific inspire this?

Pavan: I started this from the very beginning of my career, I loved henna so much that I wanted it on everything and just thought there has to be more to this that I want to share with the World. I would start on candles, and cushions, and this lead on to so many commissions. 

When I was asked to create a window display for Harrods, I knew my vision of showcasing henna in a non-traditional sense was catching on. This was on display for six weeks. I then was asked to do henna on a Formula 1 car for the British Grand Prix with Force India, and after this did a swimwear display with gold henna for Harvey Nichols and a display last year for Selfridges. This was all inspired by the love of henna and the want for sharing the capacity it has.

Since using henna in a non-traditional sense, have you received backlash?

Pavan: The only time I have had some backlash is when we did henna for Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards and received a message asking us to stop doing henna for ’white people’. We didn’t respond but just kept going and she is now a regular client of ours, I feel proud and so happy when I see people not of Asian culture wearing henna. For me it’s appreciation, not appropriation.

My passion for henna and what it does is so strong, which is why we have opened our Henna Bars globally, to make the art accessible to everyone and in a way that is safe and appealing, and we are so grateful that the response has been so positive.

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