Henna ceremonial painting, a traditional beauty practice in Zanzibar that is considered sacred and is used by married women to express their happiness and to mark religious or traditional occasions, is now being transformed into a money-making art on canvas. Locally known as “hina” in Kiswahili, henna is obtained after pounding the dried leaves of “mhina” plant which is then mixed with water to form a paste that is used to decorate feet soles, ankles, palms and nails of women. SAPHIA NGALAPI reports.
Sharifa Juma, Kaiza Mohammed and Jamila Mzee are some of the pioneering Zanzibari women who are taking henna painting from the body to the canvas in what Juma describes as “part of preserving my heritage.”
Kaiza Mohammed says it is high time women took charge of henna-painting from men. “After all, it is our art,” she says.
“When I began drawing people thought I would crazy as the joy that filled me made me laugh all the time,” Jamila Mzee says.
Juma, Mohammed and Mzee are part of Zanzibar Young Artists Association (ZAYAA), a body aiming to foster the development of local art projects and talents on the Indian Ocean Island that is part of Tanzania.
Besides Africa, the Middle East and India where henna art is considered sacred, this form of body art “that is becoming popular with people all over the world, including celebrities who are helping make it hip and bring it into the mainstream for men, women and children alike” still occupies a special position in marriages and festivals around the world and mainly in Zanzibar. In India intricate designs are painted on new brides as part of the marriage ceremony and it is associated with the transition into womanhood and a celebration of marriage.
Women appear to have grown tired of bright red palms and found that one large central dot in the palm of the hand had the same effect, while being more pleasing to the eye. Other smaller dots were placed around the centre dot and gradually gave way to the idea of creating outright artistic designs.
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According to Swahili customs, unmarried girls are forbidden to decorate themselves with henna as married women do to avoid tempting married men.
However, some religious beliefs have also led some people into disliking the usual henna paintings of human beings hanging in houses, leaving many resorting to henna paintings on canvas, mainly flower decorations. On the contrary, the locals are still painting henna on their bodies to this day, during wedding ceremonies, religious celebrations and any other time they feel like being in a celebratory mood.
While commercialism might have been far from their minds as they made this form of art in the past, contemporary henna painters have lost track as commercialism seems to take over. Most customers are tourists explaining why the henna culture has been lost to the tourist market and great henna painters caught in the cycle of commercial production.
Dismas Shekebaha, a member of ZAYAA, after realising what danger the commercial sector posed to the painters, has mobilised his colleagues to run henna workshops that target women in order to educate them as well as transform henna painting from bodies to the canvas. Many women have since then realised that henna canvas art is a good source of income to improve their livelihood, and they are optimistic that their work would be widely accepted by the Zanzibar art community as well as tourists.
Other than just being a symbol of world beauty, joy and happiness, henna is also said to have medicinal properties, chief among them being its ability to cool down the human body. The Henna plant, whose botanical name is Lawsonia Inermis is said to have helped the desert people of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Gujarat to cool their bodies. They dipped their hands and feet in a mud or paste made with the crushed leaves of the plant and when the mud was scraped off, they noticed that as long as the color remained visible, their body temperatures stayed low.