Cultural Influences on Henna Patterns
by Rahja Ahmina
Have you ever wondered how some seasoned artists can look at a pattern and identify the region from which it might have originated?
Over the years, I have gotten pretty good at recognizing the origins of designs, even if the patterns themselves are a mish-mash of multiple geographical influences. Some amazing henna artists seamlessly fuse these styles together, and I take pride in knowing the influences of various cultures that are used. Using examples of textiles, architecture, housewares and even putting the spotlight on religious influences on cultures, I will show you how certain themes and shapes emerge consistently in certain areas. We will focus on the major Henna growing and utilizing regions/countries of: India, Turkey, Morocco and Iran/Persia. I hope this overview will help you recognize stylistic elements of various cultures in common henna designs so that you can use them appropriately and creatively.
I will begin with India, as Indian henna has always thrilled me to work with mostly because it is amazingly intricate!
It can resemble ‘lace’ or have perfect filigree patterns, and in many instances, especially bridal henna, you will see representations of the bride and groom, gods and goddesses- Ganesh, Kali, Shiva- and the beloved animals the tiger and elephant (my personal favorite).
Indian henna uses repeated patterns such as paisleys and the lotus blossom, and negative space is also used widely. In most cases patterns are actually entire ‘scenes’ that depict a story- oftentimes a “day in the life”- as the Hindu faith relishes and celebrates life. Many Indian housewares and textiles use extremely vibrant colors.
Although henna doesn’t allow us to show these colors, we still can represent the patterns, animals and lovely scenes that Indian culture embraces.
Turkey is currently one of the few Middle Eastern countries that offers religious freedom in their constitution, but because of Islam’s significant historical and current impact, Turkish culture and- by extension- Turkish henna reveals deeply ingrained aspects of Muslim culture as well as other aspects of Turkish culture. The Muslim faith holds that drawing or representation of animals, people or life in general can be perceived as slander to Allah and is forbidden. Because of this, most textiles, architecture, artwork etc. in areas of predominantly or significantly Muslim inhabitants will never portray anything of the sort. In most cases, patterns feature large random elements that are repeated throughout the theme. This is completely the opposite of what you find in Indian influences! There are exceptions, which generally represent flowers, leaves and various plants. Another notable difference is that you can find quotations from the Koran in stunning calligraphy, even in textiles. Since I cannot read what this says, I am assuming the calligraphy quotes from their holy book, but I would always make sure of my sources before I used the calligraphy in my henna art (and recommend getting a translation if possible before copying calligraphy into yours as well)! Below you can see some unbelievable calligraphy that was weaved into a rug, then a pattern of henna.
Geometric influences are pretty obvious throughout Morocco- especially in its textiles and architecture. To those who are willing to look deeper, apparently straight lines reveal increasingly complex patterns of multiple boxes, squares, and diamonds enhanced by the small dots that are stacked on top of each other- lovely details! Despite the common idea that straight lines are “boring,” I find I can create so much with this particular element, and it’s one of my favorites. Designs using straight lines instead of flowing or curving lines evoke a Tribal aesthetic when they are completed. North African cultures decorate drums, pillows, and even the saddles of their beloved horses extremely elaborately with these same geometric elements.
Morocco, like Turkey, has a predominantly Muslim populace and will avoid representation of animals or life within their designs as to adhere to the rules that are laid out in the Koran.
But what some might see as an artistic restriction, Moroccan artists see as a canvas for boundless creativity! As you can see by this example of a beautiful tiled piece of a fountain, these straight lines (note: not a single round line in this!) rely on a simple, well-placed triangle to create “round” shapes that evoke a type of mandala.
Persia may no longer be on the map, but if we look at the areas that were once included in its ancient, expansive borders, present day Iran is the modern country that encompasses the majority of this historically vital region. Iranian style is often referred to as Persian. This style emphasizes long flowing plant stems, vines and an occasional animal or two within the pattern. Their textiles display great elegance, and I love them!
The long wispy elements of vines that intertwine almost resemble Celtic Knotwork. These types of patterns show a love of life and color. The designs are less busy, using more white space than Indian designs.
The ubiquitous paisleys appear, but when they are used, they tend to overlap and make an elaborate puzzle for the eye.
Despite similarities in the above examples, you can certainly see what makes each style unique if you pay attention to their distinguishing details. I have loved being a purist- passing on the knowledge and culture of henna- but I also enjoy being the “fusion” artist. Fusion gives me the luxury of merging one element with another to create a uniquely personal design. Some of my favorites to blend are Moroccan and Indian. The result of combining tight Indian filigrees with Moroccan geometric elements is a style that sets my work apart.
I highly encourage you to experiment and find your own style, playing with blended patterns!
I also encourage you to study the “pure” patterns that might catch your eye. Henna is an ephemeral art with ancient roots, and we need to preserve and pass on these roots to new artists.
Last but not least, for the working artist, learning all the of the major influences gives you a distinct advantage when booking clients who desire a strong cultural aspect in their henna ceremony, large or small!
Henna Art by
Monita Bijoriya- hennaforall.com
Sarah Walker- www.facebook.com/DreamieWood
Jen Helsel- www.jhennaart.com
Nadra Jiffry- www.nj-uniquehenna.com
Sara Vazir- sarashenna.com
Penney Douglas- www.facebook.com/pages/Henna-Art-by-Penney
Antoinette Hippe- www.antoin.net
Kiran Sahib- kiransahib.com
Monita Bijoriya- hennaforall.com
This blog was brought to you by the Henna Intensive & Retreat. Want to learn more about the art of henna and body art? Join us for a 5 day/ 4 night retreat in the beautiful mountains of sunny Southern California! Find out more about this life changing event at www.hennaintensiveandretreat.com