Khadija Ali’s precision while making intricate details to a Henna tattoo is admirable. Her outstanding skills are a result of years and years of practice.
For more than ten years, the mother of two has been tracing elaborate and basic patterns onto her client’s skin.
It is a job she has watched evolve with emerging generations demanding bolder, exciting designs, unlike their predecessors.
“Long ago the adornment of henna was popular among the elder women to mark ceremonial celebrations such as wedding days, pilgrimages, and of Eid al-Fitr. Presently, henna is applied whenever,” she said.
“The paintings were also traditional contrary to now when they have taken a life of their own,” Ali added. Henna application is a timeless form of body art in Kenya.
The coastal region is perhaps the most famed destination for this particular form of body art in the whole country.
The native Swahili inhabitants are believed to have learned the art after being influenced by Arabs and other visitors alongside Indians who penetrated the coastal strip in the early centuries.
Since its introduction, henna painting has undergone some noticeable transformations ranging from its make-up component to the adoption of more modern designs making henna tattooing and painting mainstream.
Henna is a naturally occurring dye. To obtain the final stain color, the leaves of the henna plant are dried and crushed, afterwards, the resultant powder is mixed with specific solutions to make a paste which is then applied to the skin.
Once dry, henna stains the skin in the color of brown, orange, or coffee. Its lastingness is anywhere from two to three weeks.
“About five years ago, there was a fad, where ladies living in urban cities wanted their eyebrows filled with henna to achieve a specific desired look. That was new in the history of henna adornment,” Ali said.
Ali also attributed increased attraction to henna painting to a rise in the number of proficient henna artists.
“Numerous emerging artists have played a crucial role in popularizing this ancient body art. Initially, artists were concentrated in Mombasa and other coastal towns. It was difficult to get the services of a decent henna artist outside the coast,” Ali narrated.
Ali was raised in Mombasa where she learned drawing. She later relocated to Nairobi, where she currently resides with her own family.
She said the Swahili form emanated from East Africa’s coastal communities, adding that a mixture of Swahili and Arab is the most endeared among Kenyans.
“The Swahili/Arab paintings are flowery and more compact compared to others. They command more attention,” said Ali.
Ali noted that recently henna tattoos have stroked a chord with young people who prefer them to permanent ink tattoos.
“There are ladies who want to gauge whether they like body art by first trying out henna before making an ultimate decision to be tattooed. As such, they will ask for contemporary designs,” said Ali.
She has been compelled to learn modern patterns and drawings to keep up with changing clients’ needs.
Stevenson Mwamburi, a henna enthusiast said that she possesses a strong attachment to henna tattoos which have a striking visual resemblance to ink tattoos.
Her parent’s negative perception of ink tattoos has undermined her thirst for body art.
“My parents are conservative; they tend to frown upon individuals with tattoos and numerous piercings. However, they have no qualms with henna paintings,” said Mwamburi, a college student.
Other outstanding forms of body art in the country include red ochre paint, famous among the Maasai and Samburu communities. Scarification and cicatrization, also among the Maasai, are done for both compelling and aesthetic purposes.
At the same time, Rahama Makelele, a legendary Henna artist, reveals that the market has introduced ‘black henna’ (Chemical dye) locally known as ‘piko’. It is a kind of hair dye which when applied stains the skin black.
“The black henna is more popular with dark-skinned individuals because the stain is more visible on the dark skin. Natural henna is favored by light-skinned women,” she said.
Nevertheless, doctors have raised alarm on the severity of the side effects of black henna usage.
The implications are not limited to severe itching and blistering, scar formation, and lifelong allergy to other selections of dye.