photo by sabrina amrane
The western world has little understanding of henna, its techniques or history, and no legal or commercial framework for its regulation. North Africa has been the source of unique qualities in regards to henna, but not many people know about the tradition, let alone the business side of the practice.
Dried, ground, and mixed with water, henna leaves have been used since Antiquity in North Africa as a hair, nail, skin, and cloth dye. There are many varieties recognized in the popular taxonomy of Lawsonia inermis L, henna by its Latin name. The plant is of brilliant green color, bears white flowers with four petals, arranged in a bouquet, and is fragrant.
Enclosed in small boxes of cardboard, henna powder is distributed worldwide but has not been adopted by the Western world as a natural dye.
From North America to North Africa, the henna business is multi-faceted. Its production, exportation, employment opportunities, and commercialization could serve as a model for other artistic occupations that deal directly with the human body.
Nic Tharpa Cartier is a former henna artist, designer of many henna books including Mauritania and Inadan: Tuareg and Wodaabe Style Henna Patterns, as well as co-author of Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco.
Nic Tharpa Cartier and Lisa Butterworth's Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco
PHOTO BY SABRINA AMRANE
PHOTO BY SABRINA AMRANE
He found his intrigue for henna in 1997 at the age of 11. He paints a picture of the late 90s “when henna was having a moment in pop culture.” He says, “Madonna was wearing henna all the time, you pretty much couldn’t pick up a fashion magazine without some model in it having henna on.”
Despite this surge of interest, like all other trends, henna disappeared from the public eye. It was difficult in the early 2000s to get a hold of the materials needed to do henna, but there was a small network of people on an amateur website called the Henna Page. Cartier says, “It was just a forum with conversation threads. That was pretty much the only online resource at the time. People congregated there and just discussed and shared what they were working on, what they were practicing.” At that point, which remains the case today, research on North African henna was sparse, especially in English.
This leads us to our first question: Where does henna come from?
Zahra Mohamed Bougataya'S henna-stained hands from a trip to hay Hassani, Casablanca, MOROCCO. photo by sabrina amrane
the production of north african henna
In places where henna is cultivated, its virtues are multiple. Henna is therapeutic, medical, cosmetic, and decorative. It is used by almost the entire North African population hence the need for large production. A woman in Morocco who uses it traditionally uses three to five kilos a year and sometimes more, for dyeing her hair, the palms of her hands, and soles of her feet.
In Boston, henna is often associated with India, due to the city’s large Indian community. According to Noam Sienna, who did his Master’s thesis on the henna tradition in North Africa at University of Minnesota, henna has only been part of Indian culture for the past century. Henna has been used in North Africa for over 2,000 years.
It is found in the south of Morocco, all around the Sahara, Mauritania, the Sudanese zone, and northern low-lying oases. Some of the henna used in North Africa comes from the oases that line the fringe of the northern Sahara: Gabes, Nefzaoua, El Jerid, Biskra (particularly famous for its henna production), Oued Righ, Ouargla, Tuat, Gurara, Tidikelt, and Tafilalet.
map: sabrina amrane
BLACK HENNA, BLACK MARKET?
Henna is a dye authorized by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Henna alone or mixed with natural products like lemon juice to revive the color has virtually no toxicity. Sue Murrad, a henna artist in Jamaica Plain, lightly soaks a cotton ball into a mixture of lemon, sugar, and water and taps it on her clients’ fresh henna design to sustain the stain for up to two weeks. Henna becomes very toxic when mixed with chemicals such as diluents (douliou in Arabic) to fix the color faster and more intensely and paraphenylenediamine (PPD), a synthetic chemical used for hair dye which was never meant to be on the skin. It produces a black color and shortens the drying time, which lasts only a few minutes to 2 hours. The stain thus obtained may last longer. This is commonly known as “black henna”. Marketing this product as natural henna is not only inaccurate but may be regrettable for those who have adverse results. The use of powders containing such dyes can lead to fatal accidents.
Black henna is casually prompted on the shelf behind the cashier at Adam Halal Market in Revere, right by the Beachmont train station stop on the blue line. The box reads “Rani Mumtaz Kone Black Henna Paste”. $1,112.86 worth of this product was shipped to the United States on May 20, 2016. In 2012, someone reviewed the product and said they were “immediately struck by the ammonia or something-from-a-hairdresser’s smell.” After application, they wrote, “I was a bit alarmed to find my skin kind of raised and a little ‘bubbly.’”
It is still difficult to track how black henna circulates in the United States. An Import Alert allows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to detain products that violate or appear to violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. They have two Import Alerts in effect for henna. However, because not all shipments of imported cosmetics are inspected, it’s still possible for some unsafe or mislabeled products to be imported into the country. The FDA site reads, “An Import Alert is in effect for henna intended for use on the skin because it is an unapproved use of the color additive.” Some henna hair dye companies have claimed that all of the various colors of their henna hair dye come from henna and henna only; that red henna was from leaves, black henna was from henna roots, and brown henna was from henna bark. This is not true and may have been a convenient lie to circumvent the FDA regulation and/or may have been to keep competitors and consumers ignorant of what was actually in the box.
Cartier tries to be more concerned over design and tradition. “The material doesn’t matter so much as the usage and application.” A part of why this is has to do with his reference to Sudan, where black henna is vastly used despite the population being well-aware of its risks. He says, “It’s pretty much all people use at this point, but the artistry is incredible. We can’t discount that just because they’re using an unsafe product. We do things every day that we know there’s going to be assumed risks.”
Many henna artists in Morocco, according to Cartier, use black henna on tourists as a matter of convenience; it dyes faster and is very cheap. Natural henna takes longer to stain the skin and can require a cloth to be wrapped around to protect the design from smudging. Tourists should be aware of this, should they get an allergic reaction to black henna without knowing. Cynthia Becker, a professor at Boston University and scholar of African arts specializing in the arts of the Imazighen (Berbers) in Morocco, Algeria, and Niger, says natural henna does not last on her skin so she has always opted for black henna and hasn’t had any problems. Everyone should act to their own discretion.
PHOTO BY SABRINA AMRANE
AS AN OCCUPATION
With tourist economies like Morocco, the cash-earning potential of henna is an incentive for women who want to pick up work, even if not much income is made. Cartier categorizes two kinds of henna artists in Morocco. The first are those who do henna for tourists in large plazas, and the second are specialized artists that work for private events, whose prestige is advertised merely by word of mouth.
He gives an idea of how the henna business is run in Marrakech, “Those people are not necessarily independent entrepreneurs. They either willingly or unwillingly work for a group of people who are sort of in control of the square, because that’s the main tourist area. They give a percentage of their earnings over to whoever.” Private henna artists, on the other hand, build up a reputation by their clients recommending them to others. Cartier adds, “I haven’t noticed a lot of crossover between those groups.” He also mentions that many henna artists have already made the switch to social media in Mauritania. In general, however, the network of professional henna artists are hard to find in North Africa. In Tunisia, traders complain that the trickle of tourists is not enough to compensate for locals' disinterest. Cartier says, “but they are there, and there are plenty of them. It’s a necessity. We still need those artists.”
Fatimzahra Azzaoui, first-generation Moroccan American explains that the henna artist is very much a part of the events she is invited to – the artist becomes infused into the personal life of her client. Azzaoui’s father, from Oujda, moved to the United States at the age of 18 and her mother, from Casablanca, came at the age of 19. She is currently a freshman at Tufts University as a double major in Public Health and Political Science, with a minor in Arabic. Like her ancestors, she has inherited the henna practice as a part of her culture. At a typical North African baby shower, she says you’ll see expecting mothers with their legs and hands prompted on pillows while the artist is at the center, decorating her body. People are mingling with her, and she interacts with the guests as she does their henna too.
Kaoutar Bouaitah is a first-generation American with a Moroccan background and a sophomore at UMass Lowell majoring in Public Health with a concentration in Health Science. She aspires to start clinics in rural areas of Morocco and research solutions to health inequity in the country. She concludes that tourism grants it as a way to make money rather than a vocation. “Well, traditionally, in Morocco, a woman stays at home and watches her kids so whenever I got the henna done I would always get it done at night. I would imagine that they’re doing housework, taking care of their kids in the morning and afternoon, and by Maghrib, they’ll go out to that plaza and work and do henna for people.” Bouaitah notes that each design is 5-10 dirhams ($0.52 - $1.04). Nada Elasri is a server at Del Frisco’s in Seaport, Boston. Her parents immigrated from Morocco to the United States in 1998. When asked if the henna business is more promising in the States, she doesn’t hesitate to say no. She explains why:
Hoang speculates on what it must be like to be a henna artist in North Africa and says, “I don’t know how you could make a living off of it unless you get lots of clients consistently, which I don’t know how that business would be in certain areas, maybe in cities it would be easier.” Cartier gives us an answer, “From talking to people in Morocco, the square henna artists don’t seem to be doing so great. The little they do make is not all theirs.”
Bouaitah also explains how henna artists operate in touristic spots, “I either get the vibe that they’re all working together or they’re all competing against each other. One time when I went, this lady was like, ‘Aji zwina [Come here, beautiful], let me do your henna,’ and then at the same time another one was saying the same thing to me and they’re all really pushing for me to see what they can do.” This is a technique done by henna artists to try to get as many customers as they can. She cites big cities like Marrakech, particularly Jamaa El Fna square where many henna artists are based, which was also noted by Cartier. Like any other business, henna artists pay attention to the market and what consumers are looking for. Cartier says, “In the past 20-25 years, you do definitely see tourist influence in the designs people are doing and offering.” Artists are starting to cater to Westerners by writing their names on their arms and other things that are very unconventional to customary practices.
Whether or not what the artists create is “authentic,” these women are successfully drawing local art forms into the international and domestic tourist arenas where they could make profit. Their presence in the market, the economic contributions they make to their households, and the interactions they have with dozens of tourists each day provides artists with the assurance that they are engaging in something that has meaning, if not quite the meaning that others ascribe.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF COMMERCIALIZED HENNA
Despite modernization giving way to economic benefits, the commercialization of henna puts it at risk of losing its material heritage. Cartier says, “I think there are a couple of ways to think about it. One is that, at a sort of bare bones level, some people can just think of henna as just art material like any other. When you take that approach, then what you do with it isn’t necessarily all that important. It’s an art material and artists make art of varying kinds. But I do wonder and worry a little bit whether some of this history is going to get lost as a result of it not being super popular right now. I hope it’s not endangered anytime soon, it doesn’t really seem like it is.” Many believe the only way to revive the sector is to break new ground, by promoting henna's natural benefits and diversifying into new markets. Pr. Becker mentions that in North Africa, henna is used as medicine. Whether it’s for women who work outside and develop calluses, a broken bone or sprained wrist or ankle, henna’s healing properties make it versatile.
AYSHA HOANG'S FRESH HENNA DESIGN. PHOTO BY SABRINA AMRANE
Cartier adds, “As the fashion industries in developing countries are catching up and becoming a real force, we do see them still incorporating henna which is pretty cool. There are a number of big fashion houses in places like Dubai that have henna on their models pretty frequently.”
Regions of henna habitat and traditional use
Lynda Sahli, an immigrant from Tizi Wezzu, Kabylia, Algeria, who moved to the States in 1996 amidst a Civil War describes the henna tradition that takes place the night before Eid. She explains that mothers or grandmothers would mix henna powder with warm water until it turned into the same consistency as toothpaste. They mark a circle in the palm of all the kids’ hands. Wrapped with a cloth and plastic bag, everyone would go to bed excited to see how it’d turn out the next day. Henna practices are strongly tied to this Muslim holiday in North Africa. Professor Becker says, “[Prophet] Muhammad [May Peace be Upon Him] used to dye his beard supposedly with henna. It’s something natural given by God and so it’s really well respected. It has the blessings, the baraka, so people love it, for everything.” The question arises if we can allow henna to be repurposed in any direction, and by command of anyone.
Bouaitah expresses that the modernization of henna divorces it from its historical value and meaning. In this way, it mimics the art of tattooing, which is in a separate category of body modification. Like Bouaitah, Azzaoui has much more of an affinity for traditional designs. She talks about what place henna has in her life, “It’s definitely something that’s been a part of my culture since my childhood. It’s sort of a celebratory signifier, it’s usually associated with a milestone event, whether it be a gathering, a birthday, a photo shoot, a bridal shower, a wedding.” By reducing henna to a medium of which anything can be created, we do risk devaluing the contextual particularities it holds.
Pr. Becker on the other hand, who gave a presentation on henna at the University of Mexico and wrote a book detailing Amazigh (Berber) art in Morocco, says henna is important for contemporary artists. One of these artists is Lalla A. Essaydi who grew up in Morocco and now lives in the States where she received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in 2003. Below is her Converging Territories and Les Femmes du Maroc series.
THE FUTURE OF THE HENNA BUSINESS
In July of 2018, it was reported that a water crisis in Gabes, Tunisia was a bad hit for the henna business. The lack of water– a result of urbanization and rapidly rising demands for water from industries and agriculture– forced farmers to create intricate channels to maximize the water flow for the henna plants. The loss of profit from henna has put a toll on many families, some farmers have even replaced henna plants with pomegranate trees. Only 645 tonnes of the plant was harvested in the Gabes region in 2016/17, down 20 percent from the previous season.
According to Sienna, even tourist countries who do not have a “henna culture” capitalize on this interest from Westerners and offer designs. Competition is viable when you have countries like Tunisia experiencing environmental issues that limit henna production.
Motivated by business concerns more than social ones, artists in countries with or without henna customs do not necessarily educate customers who pay for henna. In this space, the client benefits from a different experience and the artist makes some profit. The true wealth of history in regards to this art seems to be maintained within private ceremonies. It seems that the diaspora could be the mediator between a commercial and romanticized world, and a world of real tradition and meaningful commerce. In North Africa, both dimensions are needed for these artists to survive. In the West, the henna business depends on immigrants and their children preserving their culture as well as intrigue from non-Westerners. The latter should be aware of henna’s rich history and practice. It turns out it isn’t only skin-deep.
AYSHA HOANG'S FRESH HENNA DESIGN. PHOTO BY SABRINA AMRANE