In preparation for this year’s Arabian Nights themed Homecoming, the Learning Commons had two henna artists come and set up a table. Students were able to wait in line and get henna tattoos for free! Although I am not going to Homecoming I still desperately wanted a henna. I find it so beautiful. I decided to get a mandala-like pattern starting on my middle finger, going up onto my hand and then around my wrist.
I showed the artist a reference picture of what I wanted and she got to work immediately, with hands much less steady than I expected. She worked fast which surprised me. I thought it would be much more precise and much more even. As someone who is very particular and perfectionistic about linework myself, I was expecting henna artists to be the same way. I mean, you’re marking someone elses’ skin – you want them to love it!
However, her lines were not perfect, her shapes were not even, and nothing was entirely symmetrical. But I found that this is what makes it so special. When the dye hardens and cracks off you are left with a beautiful orange pattern on your skin which darkens with time. It looks so intricate and detailed. The fact that it isn’t perfect is what makes it so amazing – you can tell that it was drawn on by hand.
My mom’s best friend Sandhya, our next-door neighbor, is from India. Sandy, as we call her, invited me her niece’s wedding a few years ago. I wanted to go more than anything. I pleaded with my mom, but was not able to convince her. The wedding was going to be a four day celebration and I only had 5 days off for Thanksgiving break. I couldn’t miss too much school, and a five day trip would not be enough time considering jet-lag and how long it takes to get there. I remember seeing photographs of all the woman in a room, getting their bodies marked with henna tattoos. This was what I had been most excited for.
After I got my tattoo done in the library I decided to do some simple research on henna. I typed “henna tattoos” into Google and began to read. Although I’ve seen henna a thousand times before I never knew what the ink was made of, where the art form derived, etc.
Henna is actually the name of a flowering plant. Its leaves can be ground into a powder that is used for more than just dying skin – it can also be used to dye hair, fingernails, wool, silk, etc. It grows in subtropical regions in Africa, Asia, and some parts of Australia.
The exact origins of henna tattooing are unknown, but some websites report that it is speculated to have been around in Ancient Egypt – Cleopatra is said to have adorned her body with the markings of henna.
I also learned that the traditional art of marking the hands, feet, and other body parts with henna paste is called Mehndi (what was done at the wedding I missed). Mehndi is popular in many traditions as a form of celebration. Henna is very common in Pakistan, India, Africa, and the Middle East.
When researching henna I came to a realization: art is not limited to paint on a canvas. The human body is a canvas too, and staining skin is just a different form of drawing. There is no limit as to what materials and surfaces qualify as appropriate for art making. After researching and thinking about henna I’m feeling inspired to step out of my comfort zone and see what I can come up with.