Thursday, December 19, 2013

More Moroccanalia: Moroccan Body Art in the 20th Century

I had a great time talking about Moroccan henna with Kenzi and Nic on the Caught Red-Handed podcast Google+ hangout. We answered questions for two hours! What a blast. You can watch it on YouTube here. I had shared with them some of the inspirations that I’ve found in older photographs, drawings, and articles on North African body art, and I thought I’d share them here too.

Brides in Marrakech, Bruno Barbey, 1987

The elaborate geometric designs associated with Fes can be seen in tourist photos from the past few decades. It’s especially interesting to look at photos from the 80s and early 90s, before henna in the public sphere shifted in response to increasing tourism. This photo, by Bruno Barbey, was taken at the royal wedding of Princess Lalla Asmaa and Khalid Bouchentouf in 1987, when Moroccans from around the country gathered in Marrakech. The design is classic Fassi style, tightly packed, with lines and zigzags as essentially its only elements. Note also that her fingernails are not hennaed, but rather painted red with Western nail polish, blending Moroccan and European sensibilities.

Earlier photographs are even more striking. This photo was published in an article in 1970, “The Craft Tradition in North Africa,” by Ellen Micaud. The lines are bold and sharp, although fairly simple, and in places they may have been done with a resist. Her soles, and possibly her palms, are hennaed solidly.

Hennaed hands and feet, from Micaud, 1970

Ellen Micaud’s photo is reminiscent of an older photograph, taken by French artist Jean Besancenot in Taroudant during his trip to Morocco, 1934-1939. The feet are almost identical, with the same bands of simple bold motifs across the tops of the feet, and hennaed soles. The hands, too, are very similar, with an X-like layout defined by large triangles and diamonds. Was Micaud’s photograph also taken in Taroudant? Was this part of a traditional regional style?

Hennaed hands and feet, Taroudant,
Jean Besancenot, 1934-1939

Hennaed hands, Fes,
Jean Besancenot, 1934-1939
Other photos by Besancenot show solid or striped henna application, including on Jewish female musicians. It’s a great example of how even within one region and time, the level of henna art ranges along a spectrum of simple to complex, or perhaps self-application vs. a friend vs. hiring a professional artist, depending on circumstance and socioeconomic class. You can browse through some negatives of Besancenot here.

Beyond records of henna, I’ve also found inspiration in images of related body arts, including tattooing (washm) and soot-based ink (ḥarqūs).

Tattoo designs, Bouquet, 1936
These designs are from one of six plates of tattoo designs from an article on Tunisian tattooing traditions by French doctor Jean Bouquet. He obtained the sketches, he tells us, from “the pages of a master tattooer who died at an advanced age, more than a decade ago; few tattooers working today are still able to execute these compositions” (1936, pg. 281). The Arabic notes indicate where the designs should be placed: the square tops of designs 1-3 are for khamsat al-yad, i.e. the back of the hand, while the longer parts of 1-3 are jrida, stylized palm trees, to go ‘ala-l-yad, along the arm. Designs 4 and 5 are jridat al-zend, ‘the palm-tree of the forearm,’ to be done on the top of the arm. Design 6 is for the upper forearm, just below the elbow. I think they would look awesome in henna!

These images come from Jean Herber, another French doctor, who authored over a dozen articles on Moroccan tattoo and ḥarqūs traditions from 1919 until 1951. This plate (from 1923) shows leg tattoos from various areas in the Middle and High Atlas: Doukkala (11 and 16); Oulad Harriz (12); Tadla (13 and 17); Aït Wahi [Khemisset] (14 and 18); Beni Mgild (15 and 20); and Beni Mtir (19).

Ḥarqus on face and hand, Herber, 1929
Other articles by Herber discuss tattoos of the arm, chest, neck, and face, as well as general observations about the techniques, vocabulary, and significance of Moroccan tattooing traditions; he also devotes an article to designs done in ḥarqūs (1929).

These are sketches of ḥarqūs designs on the hand and face, observed on prostitutes in Rabat, Meknes, and Fes (with the exception of number 5, which was on a small girl).

I hope these images are as exciting and inspiring to you as they are to me! Try on a vintage Moroccan design this weekend and see how it feels.


Bouquet, Jean. Tatouages décoratifs tunisiens. Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie Vol. 93, 1936, pp. 277-283.
Herber, Jean. Les tatouages du pied au Maroc. Anthropologie Vol. 33, 1923, pp. 87-102.
Herber, Jean. Peintures corporelles au Maroc: Les peintures au ḥarqūs. Hespéris, Vol. 9, 1929, pp. 59-77.
Micaud, Ellen. The Craft Tradition in North Africa. African Arts, Vol. 3, no. 2, 1970, pp. 38-43, 90-91.


Holly said...

Noam, thank you so much for posting this info. I've been asked to provide henna for a moroccan-themed event at two senior assisted living centers in town, and wanted to give them some information to go with the designs. Do you mind if I reprint some of your blog & photos?

Noam Sienna said...

Holly — go ahead, absolutely! And there's some more information about Moroccan Jewish henna traditions on my webpage,

And feel free to email me (noam @ if you have any questions!