Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Fingernail Flower: Henna in China

The question of henna use in China has come up many times in my research, and I finally decided to address it... My obvious hesitation is that I have no background in Sinology or Chinese Studies, no knowledge of any Chinese language, and no ability to do primary research in the field. 

However, I have always maintained that my goal is not to become the ultimate authority on the history of henna in every place and every time; rather, I want to demonstrate the richness, diversity, and depth of henna’s history in order to open the door to conversation and further research. With that goal in mind, therefore, I’ve put together a few sources that I’ve found, and I invite you to contribute your own! I hope that this becomes a starting point for someone else’s research. I should acknowledge here my fellow henna artist Connie and my fellow PhD student Eric for their assistance in navigating Chinese history.

A taste of the difficulties facing even scholars of Chinese culture can be seen in a conversation that happened in 1868 in the pages of the scholarly journal Notes and Queries on China and Japan. Theophilus Sampson, a British official and botanist in southern China (writing under the pseudonym Cantoniensis, “from Canton,” now Guangdong Province), published a brief note entitled “Henna in China” in which he explained that the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) was commonly grown in the Guangdong province and that it is called zhijiahua (as he writes, “chih-kiah-hwa”), “finger nail flower.” However, he added, it was used as a dye only by the Hakka people in Guangdong and not the Punti.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Hennaed Dove: Henna in Palestinian Culture

Why does the dove always have henna on her feet? Because when Noah sent forth a raven and a dove from the Ark, the raven never came back. Therefore this curse was put upon him: “May your face be black as night”… But the dove returned, and therefore Noah blessed her with every blessing, saying, “May you every month have a pair of young ones” and “May your face forever shine white.” And since that time the dove is born with henna on her feet. — Palestinian folktale, recorded by Crowfoot and Baldensperger (1932)
Palestinian henna has been in the news recently… First, it was Gigi Hadid, who had a henna party last winter and posted a picture on Instagram with the caption that she was “half-Palestinian and proud of it.” Then there was this viral video about an artist in Gaza who uses henna to create landscape paintings. And last month, a friend linked me to this article on Al-Monitor about another henna artist working in Gaza. While the article itself is interesting enough, it quotes self-appointed “expert historian” Naser al-Yafawi with some questionable ‘facts’ about the history of henna… So I thought I’d devote a blogpost to documenting actual sources for the history of henna in Palestinian culture.

Of course, political struggles and intense ideological disagreements make it difficult to discuss any topic related to Palestinian culture, even down to what to call the area under discussion. I’m going to try my best to take a balanced and objective stance in this post, but I apologize if I’ve offended any of my readers, and I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

The area we’re dealing with, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, north of Egypt and south of Lebanon, today comprises the political entities of Syria, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. In the ancient world, this area was home to a variety of Semitic tribes, known as Canaanites, as well as the Israelites (whom most scholars consider to be Canaanites themselves), the ancestors of the Jewish people. 

Henna is mentioned in a small number of Canaanite and Israelite texts, indicating that it was known and used in the region: in the myth cycle of Ba‘al and ‘Anath, a Canaanite text discovered at Ugarit (today in northwest Syria), the goddess ‘Anath is described as using henna as she prepares to rescue her brother-husband from the god of Death, Mot. In the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], in Song of Songs, the henna plant is mentioned as growing at ‘Ein Gedi (an oasis near the Dead Sea), and it seems that its sweet-smelling flowers were valued as a source of perfume. Later Greek and Roman authors confirm that henna was grown in the region, mentioning in particular the henna of Ascalon (today Ashkelon, just north of Gaza), and the Mishnah (codified around 200 CE) specifies that henna is considered an agricultural product of the Land of Israel.

The henna plant in From Cedar to Hyssop:
A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine
(1932).

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The First Indian Mehndi Design... Part Two.

One year ago, I wrote a blog post exploring an Indian Mughal painting from Rajasthan, ca. 1740, showing a woman with a simple dot design on her palm. In that post I suggested that this was “the oldest visual depiction of henna designs in Indian art”... yet. Of course, the wonderful thing about academic research is that as your knowledge grows, you can return and revise your earlier theories. I now believe that the painting I featured there is not in fact the oldest visual depiction of a henna design in Indian art, and that we can now push the date back yet another century. I am aware of how dreadfully remiss I've been in posting henna blogs, so I've written up a short post featuring this object and hopefully it will be followed by a few others that have been queued for months... 

Scribal tools and pen cases, 18th century Turkey, in the
Aga Khan Museum.
The object in question is not a painting, but a decorated pen-case, known in Persian as a qalamdan. The qalamdan was sometimes made of metal and sometimes out of wood or papier mâché, and decorated with inlay, gold, watercolour, or lacquer. 

They were a popular object among the educated and cultured classes of Persian and Indian society, representing the owner’s appreciation of literature and the arts and suggesting (correctly or not) that the owner was a writer, poet, or artist themselves.

This particular qalamdan, currently in the Freer Gallery of Art (F1959.5) in Washington D.C., is made of papier mâché with watercolour paintings that have been glued on top.