The Secrets of Henna

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Humna Mustafa is a Pakistan-born artist currently living in Adelaide. She has an exhibition coming up at Brunswick Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne, opening December 5. You can visit her website here.

Below she answers some questions about her practice, in particular the history of Henna.

How did the decorative art of henna develop?

The history of Henna goes back 5000 years and is believed that the Muslims have used it since the early days of Islam. It is said that the prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h)  used it to colour his hair as well as, more traditionally, his beard. He also liked his wives to colour their nails with it. Prophet Muhammed (p.b.uh.) was and remains a model of perfection for Muslims has ensured the continuing popularity of Henna as a decorative art within Islam.

It is also said to have been used in ancient Egypt to colour the nails and hair of mummies, as a mark of protection when entering the new life. Hindu goddesses are often represented with mehndi tattoos on their hands and feet. In the 12th century, the Mughals (Moguls) introduced it into India, where it was most popular with the Rajputs ot Mewar (Udaipur) in Rajasthan, who mixed it with aromatic oils and applied it to the hands and feet to beautify them. From then on Henna has been regarded as essential to auspicious occasions, particularly weddings, birthdays, celebrating the maturity and many such occasions across the world now.

What are the designs based on?

(this is my own interpretation of the designs!!)
The designs, motives and patterns are influenced by religious and cultural environments. Muslims like to draw repeated floral trellis patterns, as a form of worshiping, a prayer. The hindhus designs are more inspired by symbols of the gods e.g ganesh for good luck. The Moroccans are influenced by their environment and hence using the geometric lines of the mountains they are surrounded by. The patterns of Henna, have always been looked at only for its beauty but there is a secret language of the souls behind every single creation.

Which parts of the body are used and why

(this is my own interpretation of the designs!!)
The two main parts of the body henna is applied on for centuries are the hands and the feet. They get the darkest colour of all, due to the skin texture.

The feet, are the vehicle to make you walk on your journey on this land, and the hands make you achieve that destiny that is yours. Both parts are gifts that are these days and also in ancients times been taken for granted. Hence the Art of Henna, gifts these parts the moment of just being.  Henna celebrates these the miracle of creation and a vehicle of love, by taking care of our Hand and feet. It focuses our attention on the sacred nature of their activities. It is after all the hands that we join in greeting or farewell, in worship or wedlock !!

When is henna applied to the body?

Henna is applied to the body at night, as an old myth told to me by my grandmother "Henna is shy in the morning and for it to grow on your, it needs the darkness of night, and the warmth the body" – I am not sure if this was to make me get it done before I went to bed, so I wont spoil it or is it really true. not sure !

In general henna takes a few hours for it to mature and give the body its best colour and hence it is usually applied at night time, so the pigment can stay on the skin for a long undisturbed period of time.

One thought on “The Secrets of Henna”

  1. Wonderful article! Thanks so much!

    Humna, while I love your grandmother’s explanation, you know there really is good scientific reason to henna at night and wear the paste to bed! The warmth generated by your body while you sleep really helps the dye sink into the skin. Also many people perspire just a bit while they sleep and that moisture helps keep the dye active. The alkaline environment created by perspiration helps the chemical reaction that causes the dye to adhere to skin too. Its really pretty amazing, and your grandmother knew it!

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