Do you have any images of the henna designs used and how they vary across different ethnic groups? I'm familiar with henna and my Indian neighbour taught me her traditions around it and applied some designs to me when I was a curious child and she was getting ready for a wedding, but I would assume designs very considerably between cultures as well as the context in which they are used. Would you be able to direct me to info on this? Thanks :)
You’re absolutely right — henna designs vary considerably from region to region… I often post pictures about it if you look through my henna tag. Here are some examples of different styles:
This is the style traditionally done in much of Morocco, known today simply as “bildi” (’rustic’ or ‘old-fashioned’)… Commonly associated with the “Imperial Cities” of Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech, it shares many similarities with the traditional embroidery (terz) of that region — note the division of space into diamonds and triangles, the use of parallel lines, and the toothed edging. Photo taken by me in Fes, 2014:
This is another style seen in Morocco, in the southern regions and Sahara. This “Sahrawi” style shares some elements with the henna of central and northern Morocco, but is similar in layout to the henna done in Mauritania. Photo from Flickr:
The henna of Mauritania is breathtakingly unique and immediately recognizable. In my opinion the henna artists of Mauritania are among the most talented and technically accomplished in the world; designs were traditionally done in reverse with a tape resist, and today they are also drawn (there’s actually a whole book about it!). Photo from Flickr:
And West Africa has its own style as well, commonly seen in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and other places in the region — done in reverse with tape, like in Mauritania, but with longer lines and different layouts. Photo by Casey McMenemy, from my article on henna in West Africa:
There is also a unique and recognizable style in East Africa, on the Swahili Coast (Kenya, Tanzania, etc.). Unfortunately today they often use the dangerous “black henna” chemical dye, but as you can see it can be easily replicated with natural henna (from this article on henna on the Swahili Coast):
The countries of the Arabian Peninsula have their own set of styles too, known as khaleeji (“Gulf”), which are today immensely popular around the world (even in places like Morocco and India which have their own longstanding traditions of henna design). In the Khaleej itself there are many henna salons with local and international artists, and so the designs are constantly evolving; the constant, for me, is the open layout and the contrast between thick and thin. Here’s an example of some contemporary khaleeji-style work (from Instagram):
Of course, Persia was once the heartland of henna, and in the Safavid period we have many depictions of beautiful, elaborate henna patterns in illustrated manuscripts. While the tradition died out during the Qajar period under the influence of Western fashion, it is clear that there was once a “Persian style” of henna, which some artists have attempted to continue or revive. This is a (very zoomed-in) detail from Mir Sayyid Ali’s 1540 masterpiece “A Nomadic Encampment” (and for more on Persian henna, see this article):
And while India came rather late to the henna-pattern game, developing traditions of henna art only in the 18th-19th century, by the 20th century South Asia had become one of the centres of henna art worldwide, and the henna styles from the region are probably the most common and recognizable today. That’s not to say that they were always what we think of today as “Indian-style” henna — here’s an example of Rajasthani designs from the 1950s recorded by Jogendra Saksena, which are quite different than the style of henna common in India today:
Not to mention the fact that within the Indian subcontinent, there are (or have been, historically) distinct regional styles: Pakistani, Marwari, Rajasthani, and more… And of course, henna designs are constantly changing! What was popular and stylish twenty years ago is not the same as what was popular ten years ago, or what is popular now. Especially with the interconnectedness of the internet, artists around the world are able to learn from each other, spread innovations, and merge styles in new and exciting ways.
Compare this old-fashioned, recognizably Pakistani-style design (from Flickr):
To the contemporary work of Pakistani-American artist (and dear friend of mine) Sabreena Haque, who combines motifs and layouts from Indian, Pakistani, Gulf, and Moroccan patterns, along with inspiration from many other areas of art and nature (from her Instagram):
And there’s so much more to explore! There seems to be a unique style of henna patterns in the Balkans, similar to their tattooing and embroidery. What were henna designs like in medieval Spain? Yemenite Jews had their own unique patterns and techniques as well, which still need more research. And there’s more to say about the evolution of henna designs in Morocco too!
I could go on and on, but perhaps that’s enough for now. Let me know if I can answer any other questions!