By Lizzy Zarrello

The 5000 Year old tradition of henna is taking modern heights with artist Azra Khamissa’s minimalist (and politically charged) twist.

For over 5000 years, henna tattooing has been practiced in Pakistan, India, Africa, and the Middle East. Henna is a paste derived from the henna leaf and was often used for its cooling properties by those living in the hot desert. The paste would be rubbed on the hands and the feet and used to treat injuries until people noticed the rich pigment. Henna contains a reddish natural dye called lawsone. Due to its colorful properties, henna transformed from a medicinal treatment to a decorative statement. The dye’s earliest use dates back to the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, when its last queen, Cleopatra, was recorded to have used the substance to color and condition her nails.

Today, henna is often worn as a temporary design to celebrate weddings, birthdays, and more. The designs often hold significant symbolism, often relating to prosperity, love, loyalty, fertility, and good luck. In India, some believe that the deeper the pigment on one’s wedding day symbolizes a closer relationship with one’s mother-in-law. The thousands of years-old tradition has also been adopted by western culture by celebrities like Beyonce and Madonna sporting the sacred designs as accessories. 

Azra Khamissa takes a modern approach to this ancient technique. Based in Dubai, she is a Canadian-South African artist, designer, chiropractor, and founder of Azra, a Brand dedicated to making high-quality henna accessible to the masses. Over email to Mission, Khamissa opened up about how henna has always been prevalent in her life and upbringing, “especially during special events such as weddings and the two Eid’s every year. Even after we moved from suburban Canada to the UAE in 2001, it was still just as prevalent in Emirati culture.” Her contemporary approach began five years ago with a request from a friend who was getting married to paint her palms with henna, “I decided to try a very traditional and minimal design that you wouldn’t normally see in a wedding setting. It was a big circle in the palm and dipped ginger tips.”

 For later weddings and Eid’s, she began gathering inspiration from nature, art, and architecture, exploring minimal techniques instead of the well-known, ornate Indian/Moroccan design style. 

Khamissa has also harnessed her designs to forward political causes. Her designs have advocated for the people of Palestine and her Islamic background and made designs to commemorate holidays dedicated to female empowerment, such as National Women’s Emirate Day and National Women’s Day. Khamissa believes, “it’s important to speak up about causes that are important to you. Photographs of Henna happen to be the platform and form of communication that I can reach the farthest with, so it is the tool I use the most to reach masses.” Khamissa uses her work as a political platform to connect with others who strive for action and change. 

Creating henna works for brands like Apple, Gucci, and Bulgari, in the future, Khamissa hopes to “do more international collaborations on the runway, and in film, and art and to continue sharing messages of hope, love, and tolerance in the work that I do.” 

Images courtesy of Gbadebo Azra Khamissa

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