Lately I’ve had several clients timidly sit down in my studio and awkwardly apologize, “I’m sorry if this is cultural appropriation, I just really love henna.”
It got me thinking, is it cultural appropriation?
Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of an element(s) of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.
In the case of henna, this definition could be interpreted as: it’s taking the sacred art and application of mehndi without permission and turning it into fashionable consumer culture, where the significance is lost.
An example could be:
the trendy henna freckles on the face, or giant words like “Miami” on the forearm for teens on vacation. In these contexts, it can be hard to educate the client. Instead, I try to steer them to my portfolio and say, this is the kind of art I’m good at, or refer them to colleagues who are better suited for their requests.
Yes, seeing people wear Hindu symbols on T-shirts at Cochella can be hurtful and offensive, but if the symbols are being used in the right spiritual context, in my opinion it’s cultural sharing.
After all, henna is a plant with the botanical name Lawsonia Inermis, a medium that artists all over the world have used in many different cultures throughout history. Body painting isn’t new, Africans and Egyptians did it for tribal markings and sunblock. In the Middle East and South Asia it is predominantly used for weddings and holidays by all, rich and poor. Today, it’s used for much more than skin art but hair dyes and conditioners. Furthermore, the art of henna has even expanded to the medium of jagua gel/dye and waterproof body paint in the form of “white henna.”
A little of my personal history:
I grew up with mehndi as a part of my culture, in weddings and holidays. Mehndi is a very important and sacred part of the 4-day Indian wedding ceremonies, often kicking off the whole week of festivities.
They say, the darker the henna the stronger the love, they even say, if you can’t find the groom’s name hidden in the intricate designs of the brides palms, you cannot consummate the wedding! — this began back when there were arranged marriages, when an ice breaker was definitely needed.
The henna ceremony for a bride is often with women of both groom and bride’s side, called the sangeet – musical, where all the ladies surround the bride, sing songs, do dances and put henna on each other, while serving specialty sweets. The mom’s, sisters and closest relatives always get more henna and those that are distant family and friends get less. There are many other intricacies and nuances to this special day that I personally take great pride in being a part of.
Although this was a right for Muslim and Hindu brides, I now work with mixed couples all the time, and I educate the non-indian brides and their families about the subtleties of the henna ceremony and we all enjoy this beautiful bonding.
Sidebar: With respect to the culture and traditions many non-indian artists prefer not to do bridal henna because they do not want to disrespect the customs and traditions. Conversely, I take great offense when Indian people discriminate against “white artists,” let’s take a moment to look at the artists’ quality of work and ethics and not judge on skin color!
My joy and inspiration is sparked by working with women and feminine designs.
I’m most happy when the art remains healing, spiritual, celebratory and within my Indian style. When I sit down to draw, it is like a mini meditation. Where the music is right, the essential oils linger in the air and we are connected by the art, in a therapeutic experience.
Outside of my preferred styles, I try to push myself to create new patterns, explore different techniques and new surfaces to adorn, but fielding certain requests for customers can be hard. As an artist and even as a human, learning to say no and setting boundaries comes through many challenges and lessons. With time, I have found that I get uncomfortable with overtly western design requests such as flames, dragons, characters, certain words etc. I especially get uncomfortable when these requests come from men, and the placement requests are on the face, like Tyson, or on the neck or chest or below…
I have no problem doing “scandalous” art on canvas or using other mediums, but when it comes to henna a sacred button goes off in my head. For example, I absolutely love doing a little design for a groom with the bride’s initials and little hearts and dots (what can I say, I’m a romantic).
When faced with certain western requests, I strive to personalize the design as much as I can, such as adding Indian style flowers to the skeleton hand design that has become very popular.
So, when these clients come into my studio, I want them to feel welcomed. If they feel guilty or question if it’s ok, I tell them, Henna is used for blessings, celebrations and healing. And that it will be beautiful for their occasion or personal reason. Many clients come to me for life struggles, spiritual moments, trauma or mental health, physical scars, grief and chemo. It is an honor for me to be able to empower these women and offer healing through my art.
To artists of the west, don’t let the words “cultural appropriation” scare you away from the art of henna.
I encourage you to be mindful artists, to henna with purpose. To paint designs of significance and relevance, and when the lines and gray areas are approached, educate yourself and others on the sacred art and rituals of mehendi/henna. Set the right intentions with cultural awareness and context, teach as you go along 🙏🏽😊