The geography of henna

Abbey Swank

Ancient, intricate art form still fascinates people

Henna can last up to two weeks. Flowers and geometric shapes are only a few of the designs that can be used for henna art.

Photos by Katie Roupe | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

The intricate art swirls across its canvas. A gentle hand applies the tiny lines and dots of paint. The canvas, the human body. The paint, henna, an ancient form of body art.

Henna is a plant, a small shrub. Its leaves are plucked and then made into a reddish-brown paste to be applied to the body.

“There is no one origin,” said Catherine Cartwright-Jones, a geography graduate student and leading expert on henna. “The plant expanded northward from North Africa after the last Ice Age. Linguistically, you can find fundamentally different words for the plant.”

Cartwright-Jones said henna also has many different uses. Henna as body art seemed to have originated from the Mediterranean Islands, Syria, Turkey and Palestine. Arab countries and Egypt used henna for medicinal purposes on skin conditions, such as sores or burns, she said.

“Up until the 1990s, henna was unknown outside of newly immigrated people,” Cartwright-Jones said. “Not many in the West knew of henna until Madonna’s video, ‘Frozen.’ She wasn’t wearing henna, but everyone thought she was.”

Also, in the late 1990s, people were coming over in large numbers from South Asia, she said.

“These people still had arranged marriages back home and were traveling back and forth from India. People in the West would then see the henna on their hands when they came back.

Cartwright-Jones said the Internet was also crucial. People could have henna shipped over from India.

“Henna had always been an art done by an under class of people,” she said. “They had to touch hair and feet. A woman was not going to make a lot of money. It was not considered a high art.”

She said with the rising growth of the middle class in India, the demand for it has increased.

“The middle class has money to spend,” she said. “It shows you can throw away money because henna doesn’t last. Artists in England can charge $500 an hour. It is like designer jeans, you want to show you can pay the money.”

Geography graduate student Niti Duggal said henna has a religious attachment for Hindus and Muslims.

“It is a form of decorating,” Duggal said. “The day before the wedding, there is a henna night. It is a ceremony at both the bride and groom’s houses. The women in each house apply henna to the bride and groom. The bride has it covering her hands and feet and the groom usually only has a small spot on his hand.”

Duggal said henna is applied to mainly the hands and feet in India and the use of it as full body art is more a part of Western culture.

Cartwright-Jones said henna is safe, but to watch out for the black henna advertised along beaches and boardwalks.

“There is no such thing as black henna,” she said. “What they use at the beach can be dangerous. They use black hair dye and 15 percent of people can have a severe reaction to it, leaving scars and blisters.”

Duggal said there are harmless things, such as tea tree oil, that can be added to henna to make it darker.

“Henna is an ancient and beautiful art that many people in the Western world don’t understand,” Cartwright-Jones said. “I want to help bring that understanding here so people can appreciate the art the way it’s meant to be.”

Contact College of Arts and Science reporter Abbey Swank at [email protected].