In the late 1990s, mehndi (a/k/a henna) was just appearing in Western pop culture. Perhaps the first glimpse we got was in Madonna’s video ”Frozen” from her groundbreaking Ray of Light album. (Although her designs in that video were black, not red/brown – probably done with body paint rather than natural henna to fit with the dark, brooding mood of the video.)
Madonna was into yoga and saris, and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt was on the mehndi train as well. Then Sting recorded “Desert Rose” and Shakira began shaking her hips, and suddenly the Western world was getting keen to raqs sharqi (bellydance), Bollywood and mehndi.
In 1999, I’d started studying Middle Eastern dance in earnest, and my boyfriend at the time was enthusiastic. (I know – no surprise there!) One day, he brought me a book: Mehndi: The Timeless Art of Henna Painting by Loretta Roome. “I think it’d be cool if you learned how to do this,” he said.
I knew a little about henna from reading Hanan al-Shaykh's Women of Sand and Myrrh. However, I knew next to nothing about mehndi’s history or how it was made or applied, and Roome’s book introduced me to a whole new world.
I made a lot of rookie mistakes.
Crappy premade henna paste cones, ridiculous rubber stencils, a shaky, untrained hand. I’m glad my friends still like me.
In about 2003, I was better and started hanging out my shingle as a freelance artist. Still had the day job. Glad I kept the day job. Made some more rookie mistakes.
Somewhere along the way, I found my groove, learned to make gonzo homemade paste, kept reading and studying, and practicing. In 2007, I married a wonderful man (different guy; not the boyfriend from 1999) who encouraged me to keep working on my art. And in 2011 when I just couldn’t take the crappy corporate day job any more, I decided to go full time.
I am by no means a Kenzi … or a Darcy Vasudev … or a Justine Howland-Goodwin … but I’m not too shabby. :) And yes, I am a white chick, mostly Celtic heritage. So far, whenever I tell people from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East that I do henna, they’re usually pleased that a white American would bother to learn something about their culture. When they actually see my work, they’re pleasantly surprised.
Mehndi has gone global, and while Madonna and Gwen deserve props for bringing henna into the public consciousness, I’d like to thank the generations of Southeast Asians and Middle Easterners who preserved this amazing art form through the ages and for bringing it to the New World.