Henna powder and paste

[b]Left:[/b] Collected and donated by Henry Balfour in 1930; 1930.43.9[br][b]Right:[/b] Purchased for the Museum by Jenny Peck in 2001; 2001.43.1Left: Collected and donated by Henry Balfour in 1930; 1930.43.9
Right: Purchased for the Museum by Jenny Peck in 2001; 2001.43.1
Henna powder, Hausa people, Nigeria, before 1930

Henna paste, Oxford, Britain, before 2001

Mehndi, the art of painting with henna, has been used as a way of decorating the body for several thousand years or more. It occupies a special place between body panting and tattooing by offering a semi-permanent dye.

The reddish-yellow henna dye is extracted from the leaves and stems of the mehndi plant. Historically it was widely used to dye clothing and horses' manes, but the Egyptian pharaohs also used it to colour their own hair and nails. In addition to reddish tones, it also adds shine and thickness and is still used in hair preparations today.

Across Northern Africa, Turkey, India and the Arab world, women also mix the dried henna with slaked lime to form a paste with which they adorn their hands, arms and feet to enhance their beauty, especially ahead of special occasions such as weddings, rites of passage or celebrations. Not only are the hands and feet parts of the body less likely to be clothed, they attract attention through movement in dance, and the skin there contains the most keratin which binds to the colorant in the henna. The designs often echo forms found in nature (leaves and fruits) or fabric designs from the local area. The resulting patterns are usually brown-orange in colour but can sometimes turn out sometimes black, depending on the concentration of the paste, and will last several weeks. According to the tradition of Indian wedding ceremonies, the deeper the colour obtained on the skin, the longer the love between the couple will last.

The medical and purifying properties of henna reside in its cooling and anti-fungal properties. In some cases however, the designs themselves – often comprised of swirling, intricate or geometric patterns that take hours to create – are said to offer protection against illness or evil spirits, a power more commonly attributed to tattoos. The magical properties of henna are also said to make the wearer more receptive to the natural energies that surround them. It is said that the prophet Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam, once remarked, "there is no plant dearer to Allah than henna."

Henna has become popular in the West since the 1990s. Once applied using specialist tools, today the paste is widely available ready-made in convenient tubes. These come with nozzles for direct application to the skin and are often part of a set that includes patterns and stencils for greater ease of use. Some people find henna paste useful for testing the appearance of a real tattoo.

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