by Modesrah Ahmed
DISCLAIMER: The following is my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Henna Intensive & Retreat or its administrators. It is not meant to offend or upset anyone but merely to share a viewpoint.
The origin of the term “cultural appropriation” is not known but it was coined by an academic in reference to the misuse of colonial rulers against minority groups like African slaves and Native Americans. However, it no longer carries the same meaning as modern academics have broken down terminology further into “cultural appropriation” and “cultural MISappropriation”.
There are also more terms that you have probably never heard of, so let’s take a moment to go through them:
Cultural appropriation: To be inspired to adopt/share elements of another culture. This is usually done with respect for the particular culture and with the intention of spreading the positive aspects of a culture.
Cultural misappropriation: To take advantage of a minority culture or beliefs for one’s own benefit with no regard for the rights or respect for that minority culture. Many entertainers and celebrities seem to be notorious for using regalia or images considered sacred to other cultures and beliefs.
Cultural diffusion: The spread of cultural items (such as ideas, traditions, cuisine, etc.) between individuals, whether from the same culture or different cultures. For example, the national dish of England is Chicken tikka masala, a traditionally Indian dish.
Cultural appreciation: To appreciate elements of another culture by learning about it. I actually think that henna is cultural art appreciation. Art appreciation is when a person learns about art by understanding the background of art, the styles, the artists, the culture of art around the world and so forth.
Cultural Assimilation: When elements of an individual or group’s culture begin to resemble another culture. A typical example of this is immigration. Many immigrants adopt the traditions of their new homelands. Over time, migrant traditions such as food and special holidays may also become a part of the new homelands culture. This cross cultural assimilation is very typical all across the world.
Now that we know these lovely terms and feel a little more informed, let’s continue our discussion.
Henna has been recorded in historical artifacts for centuries, some of the earliest data being found in Northern Africa. Over time, it found its way, most likely via merchants, through the Middle East and in South Asia. Commerce and migration are the primary reasons for cultural diffusion, and this is how I learned about henna as a child. My mother, a Pakistani migrant in England taught my sisters and I the art of henna. We would buy henna from an Indian store located an hour away from our home so that we could apply it on special occasions like Eid. So a plant thought to have originated from Northern Africa found its way to London, England and now America. That, folks, is true cultural diffusion of henna!
The henna artists I have come across, with the exception of just a handful, are genuinely passionate about cultural traditions and show nothing but respect and cultural appreciation. With this attitude, they have positively appropriated the culture of henna art and are attempting to assimilate a beautiful tradition into the Western cultural mainstream.
My personal litmus test of whether a person is appreciating or misappropriating is to ask them if they would continue to do henna if they weren’t paid to do so. More than likely, a henna artist genuinely appreciates henna so much that they answer would be a resounding “YES!”
So what about the handful of henna artists that are NOT respectful of the art? I have met some henna artists who have asked “what’s the fastest way to make money from this? This seems like an easy gig to make a ton of money”. I know of henna artists who hate foreigners and migrants and want America to be great again – which to me is code for ‘white people only’ – but profit from elements of a culture they despise. These are the people who can be said to be culturally misappropriating henna art. They have indeed commercialized culture for their own benefit with disrespect for the traditions and origins of henna.
This is why context matters. Why a person does something needs to be evaluated before passing judgment. Is the person misrepresenting a culture or tradition? Is the person negatively stereotyping or belittling a culture? Is the person creating a positive image of a tradition or culture?
Is the person allowing a tradition to flourish by their actions? Culture misappropriation has been prevalent in our history and we should never ignore the current abuse of sacred elements. Even today, minority cultures such as Native Americans understandably have many issues regarding the misappropriation of their beautiful traditions and regalia. They have been relegated to a Hollywood stereotype of the violent boorish troglodyte which ignores the reality of their true culture. Historic America took a culture and misappropriated it for their own personal gain and pleasure without any regard for the feelings of Native Americans. That is cultural misappropriation and that should never be condoned.
Henna artists are not stealing from other cultures, they are sharing their beauty through their own talents and efforts. When you hire a henna artist, you are hiring them for their skills inspired by the beauty around them, which includes traditional culture. The caveman invented fire, the wheel and artwork using natural pigments around them. Art has been around forever and the use of nature to form the art pieces also have been around forever. Art cannot be claimed exclusively by any culture though art form can be more cultural. The way I like to think about henna is that henna art is was cultivated in its traditional regions like Yemen, Morocco and India but it found its bloom in the western world. Without the diffusion of the henna art into the western hemisphere, the art of henna would have slowly dwindled like many of the dying traditional arts of cultures. Instead, cultural appreciation of henna by the western folk has allowed a centuries old tradition to flourish and a whole new generation of henna lovers are being created daily.
As a person of Pakistani origin, I am glad that a tradition I hold to be so beautiful and sacred will continue to remain alive thanks to the “goris”(Hindi for white women) who are willing to appreciate the significance of henna in cultural traditions. So to all those who are sharing a beautiful aspect of my own personal culture, this beautiful tradition valued by so many cultures worldwide- thank you for culturally appropriating henna art!
Sarah Baxter-Arias – www.danceandsingsarah.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