Connection through culture

By Erin Ratigan
Photo by Farida Degani

Without negative space, there is no design. 

Henna artist and owner of Stratus Boutique, Farida Degani casually makes this observation describing how the undyed skin beneath the ink allows henna’s beauty to show through. But then her words feel deeper — more poignant. “The negative space differs with different kinds of people … Without the negative space, how would the design be?” she observes rhetorically.

Henna is an art form with more than 9,000 years of history. Though most Westerners probably know it as an Indian wedding tradition, henna tattoos have cultural ties to many other West Asian countries including Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan. She says some of the earliest uses for henna were dying silk and pottery. That was during the Bronze Age — approximately 3300 to 1200 BC.

 She says the practice of applying henna topically traces back at least to the ancient Egyptians, who dyed pharaohs’ nails with henna before burial. It is said Cleopatra also used henna to dye her nails and hair — albeit for more fashionable purposes.

 Henna tattoos are applied in a paste composed of crushed leaves from the henna plant Lawsonia inermis. They last up to three weeks, often darkening slightly over time. Farida says the deepening color is part of why henna is popular for weddings in India — that a bride’s changing henna is considered symbolic of her new husband’s and in-laws’ growing affection.

 “A lot of people understand henna as just a very decorative thing, but … the aesthetic part is the final rung,” Farida says.

 Farida has applied henna for 41 years and explains that while henna is beautiful, it also has potential health benefits like soothing eczema. In traditional medicine, henna leaves were used to heal wounds and skin irritation due to their anti-inflammatory and cooling properties. Medical research has generally supported these uses, with studies from Oxford University and medical schools in Taiwan, Iran, and Cyprus finding henna’s chemical compounds can help reduce inflammation and relieve dermatitis pain. 

She says this cooling effect was particularly important for people living in subtropical climates and makes henna popular at summer festivals and markets. “There was a time when we did not have the creature comforts that we have now. So, it was really, really helpful with cooling down,” she says.

 When it comes to non-Western practices like wearing henna, some women worry about cultural appropriation. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines cultural appropriation as a phenomenon where members from a “majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful or stereotypical way.” Farida says she doesn’t believe in gatekeeping her culture and is not offended to see Western women with henna.

 “I think it’s perfectly all right for people to use henna for whatever reasons they deem right. … Just because henna belongs to my culture, that doesn’t mean I have the right to it or [only] brown people have the right to it,” she says.

 As a first-generation immigrant, Farida says sharing her love of henna brings her joy and new friendships. There’s a gentle intimacy that comes with holding a stranger’s hand for 10 minutes, and after all these years, Farida says she still loves those brief moments of connection. “It is part of God’s creation,” she says of her medium. “It’s available freely, and if anyone wants to try it, they should.” 


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