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Lawsonia Inermis On Your Epidermis
Lily Whitehead and the Art of Henna
“My Beloved is unto me as a cluster of Camphire in the vineyards of En-Gedi.”
~Song of Solomon 1:14
Known throughout the world under various names such as Camphire, Cypress Shrub, Egyptian Privet, Jamaica Mignonette, Mindie, Tree Mignonette and by its botanical name, Lawsonia Inermis, the henna plant is subtly interwoven into many regions’ cultural and religious histories through various rites, medicinal uses and artistic applications. Henna makes itself known in ancient writings, from an Egyptian pharmacopeia revealing the healing powers of henna to the Song of Solomon and the Talmud, which uses the plant as a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution. I recently spoke with a local henna artist, Lily Whitehead, to talk to her about the history of henna, her initiation into it and how it is used in Western culture today.
“I know that one of the earliest documented purposes for henna was to cool the body.” she said as she sat cross legged on a chair in a friend’s Front Street art studio. “It will bring your body temperature down, so it’s interesting that the henna plants grow in places that are extremely hot, desert climates. They would dip their hands and feet into henna and it would cool them down and over time, it sort of went from just dipping to creating designs, so that’s kind of how that evolved.”
Lily became aware about henna art and design not from reading ancient texts or seeing pictures of people from far away cultures adorned with the intricate reddish-brown designs. Her introduction to henna was through a medium that was thoroughly American.
“I saw it on TV, and my first impression was, ‘That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’ So then, when I started looking into it and I started to learn more, I began to buy books and learned different things about it. I found a henna kit somewhere and started playing with it and, just over time, learned what was all wrapped up in it.”
Lily began immersing herself in the methods of creating a henna paste from scratch, learning different techniques through reading, repetition and trial and error. What started out as a personal artistic expression quickly became a rather unique enterprise for her.
“I just happened to run into somebody who noticed the henna I had done on my feet. This was back in 1997 and nobody here knew what henna was and this guy was like, ‘Oh wow! Who did your henna?’ and I told him that I did it.” Lily recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, well I work in a tattoo shop and we’ve been looking for someone to do henna.’ So, I started to do henna there and worked there for about a year and a half.”
Through various depictions in the media, especially from Madonna’s 1998 Frozen video, henna art has became en vogue, creating a crush of people trying to cash in on this ancient art form. Problems began to arise from the sudden popularity, primarily from the use of less than pure forms of henna, some of which contained no actual derivatives of the henna plant at all. The use of what is touted as ‘black’ henna has sparked heated debates, lawsuits and caused more than a few seriously traumatic injuries to those that have received ‘temporary tattoos’ advertised as ‘black’ henna. Ironically, the designs that Madonna sported in her video were of the black variety and she became quite upset after she learned about the dangers of ‘black’ henna later.
“Yes, it is bad, because it may or may not contain any actual henna at all.” Lily said, quite passionately. “It does contain PPD (Para-phenylenediamine), a black hair dye, which is a transdermal toxin and is not meant for use on the skin. It can cause anything from mild skin irritation and rashes to chemical burns and scarring. Like if that (pointing to a recent design she had just completed) was ‘black’ henna and you had a bad reaction to it, you would have a scar of the design, only it wouldn’t be as defined as that. It would be a mass of scar tissue. You can also get a lifetime chemical sensitivity from it.” she went on. “Let’s say you get a ‘black’ henna design and you don’t get an immediate allergic reaction to it. Well, two years from now, you could buy some new perfume and spray yourself with it and all of a sudden swell up because the perfume triggers an adverse reaction.”
I knew that this was a subject that Lily felt strongly about, one with the actual nature of the art form as well as warning unsuspecting consumers as to the dangers of vendors who may use inferior or possibly dangerous products either through ignorance or as a way to extend their profits. I also knew that Lily was very much into this for more esoteric reasons, like the true form of henna art and the close, personal interaction with her clients. I wondered whether or not people found the process and its underlying, almost mystical heritage, to be therapeutic.
“Well, everybody always comments on how the henna smells saying that it smells so good.” she stated rather candidly. After going through some of the processes and ingredients that went into the henna paste, she went on to say, “The oils in the paste, well, the eucalyptus oil especially, has a relaxing, calming, soothing effect, so I think it’s a calming, relaxation type of thing to people. The cool part of it is that it’s not just ‘in the moment’ because they (the customer) walk away with something that lasts a while and I know that for the next couple of weeks or so, they’re going see this design and it’s going to make them happy and they’re going to think about me and the whole experience. So, it’s something that kind of stays with them, which I think it is really cool.”