Game Changers The Marriage Issue

Meet the woman modernizing henna art

"I did not like the traditional floral designs. I wanted to do something different."

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By Sharifa Al Badi

Before all the pharmaceuticals, chemicals and make-up, people experimented with their natural environment. The henna plant was discovered eons ago, and it has been used by different civilizations across the world as a beauty factor, and also for its health benefits. Though the exact place and date of its first usage is unclear, the tradition dates back as far as Ancient Egypt (3100 BC) at least, as traces of henna have been found on mummies.

Since then, people have been using henna for various purposes, including to mark celebrations such as engagements, marriages and religious holidays. Today, the use of henna has spread around the world, but it is most popular in the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and North Africa.

To make the widely used henna paste, the henna plant is dried then crushed. One must mix it with water or essential oil to release the natural dye. Henna is most commonly used as art on the skin, but people also use it to dye their hair naturally.

One doctor and handbag designer in Dubai saw henna art in a different light, and her unorthodox perspective and direction is gaining her recognition in the UAE and wider Gulf Region. Canadian-South African cum Dubai resident Dr. Azra Khamissa didn’t start off her career as a henna artist. She designed herself to understand the human body through chiropractic, and then carried her knowledge into creating camel leather handbags. Her eponymous handbag line AZRA designed by Dr.Azra, is based and made in Dubai, UAE.

” I am a chiropractor, handbag designer and henna artist” she tells me when we speak. “ It’s all an interconnected fluid expression of the self over multiple platforms, but by the body for the body. The way the joints form the hands and the hands extend and shape the craft. You can’t have one without the other, which is how I integrate each practice with the other.”

Dr.Azra Khamissa’s designs put a modern twist on a beloved traditional form of art. Photos courtesy of Dr.Azra Khamissa.

The henna plant is said to have health benefits as well. Well versed on the plant, Dr. Azra tells us how henna has a cooling effect on the body, can promote hair growth and is anti-dandruff.

Despite living in Canada, Dr. Azra grew up knowing about henna but was not drawn to it very much. “Growing up abroad, henna was still a big part of our Eid celebrations, but I did not like the traditional floral designs. I wanted to do something different,” she recalls. Though they differ from place to place, traditional henna designs generally range from simple to intricate geometric or floral patterns that cover the entire hand, parts of the arm, and feet. Designs like that, which generally just aim to beautify the body, have been the most popular in the Gulf Region.

Dr.Azra first got a chance to experiment with henna art during a photo-shoot in 2016. “During a photo-shoot for my handbag line, I saw the beauty and power that henna had, and from there my interest in henna design started,” she says. Her background as a self-taught painter and make up artist (skills she developed on the side during her chiropractic studies) has helped her create her designs.

The full moon glove design. Photo courtesy of Dr.Azra Khamissa.

Finding inspiration from everywhere around her, Dr. Azra has an interesting, fresh range of henna art designs. One of her popular designs is the full moon glove, which was inspired by the fashion house Marine Serre and their quirky moon suits.

But her works also makes statements and has symbolic meaning. The simple “NO” henna hand design is an example. “ Some of us don’t know that when someone tries to change our mind about something, even if it is in a pleasant way, it is considered emotional manipulation. I wanted to illustrate that NO means NO. Women should never feel guilty for saying no,” she explains.  Then there is the flower design that was inspired by a garden. “It was inspired by my garden at the end of winter, when all the flowers were falling, and the whole garden smelled like heaven, illustrating that even if something has ended it still carries beauty.”

Left: inspired by her garden at the end of winter, this design sybmolises how something can still be beautiful even though it has ended. Right: this design empowers women to say no in the face of manipulation. Photos courtesy of Dr.Azra Khamissa.

Dr. Azra’s fresh take on henna art has been overwhelmingly welcomed by women in the region as something that modernizes a beloved traditional form of art, and gives it an edge. “Mostly people have been loving and embracing my work,” she says. “It is a new perspective on henna design.”

For the moment, Dr. Azra is freelancing as a henna artist. Her designs have caught our attention, and the attention of big corporations such as Nike, Fendi and Piaget, who have invited her to provide exclusive, complimentary henna designs for events (call it branded henna).

“A polka dot affair” design by Dr.Azra Khamissa. Photo courtesy of Dr.Azra Khamissa.

Most of Dr.Azra’s henna work is private or for brand activation. To book a session with her, you can send her a direct message on Instagram. But there is a waiting list, and rates differ based on the design. You can also watch her Insta story to see where she may be doing her next henna pop up, henna complimentary!

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Sharifa Al Badi is a published writer and author from the magical lands of Oman. She has written for Esquire ME, Khaleejesque and The Culture Trip. She is also the author of “Themis Aella & The Magical Forest” and “50 Things To Know As An Adult.”