Friday, September 27, 2013

Pictures of Persia: henna in the photography of Antoin Sevruguin

While looking for documentation of Persian Jewish henna, I came across the photographs of Antoin Sevruguin, and they were so wonderful that I wanted to share this resource. I realized that my intention in starting this blog was to share things that I find as I go along my research, not to go out of my way to research new posts (which is what the last few posts have been). So here’s a short(er) post with some awesome photos! Enjoy!

Antoin Sevruguin was a Georgian-Iranian who operated a photography studio first in Tabriz, and then in Tehran, from the 1870s until his death in 1933. He also traveled around the country on various expeditions taking photographs of monuments, archaeological sites, and the various peoples and cultures of Iran. He was a celebrated photographer in his day both in Iran and abroad, although many of his photographs were distributed without attribution (for example, in the 1921 National Geographic issue on Persia), and unfortunately thousands of his negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1908. For more information see the biographies here and here.

The Smithsonian collections in the Freer Sackler Museum of Asian Art contains about a thousand photographs attributed to Sevruguin, including glass plate negatives and albumen photoprints. They have all been digitized and you can sort through them here by searching “Sevruguin”. This is an amazing resource for visualizing 19th and 20th century Iran!

I trawled through them myself and found lots of interesting instances of henna, including several photographs that were identified as Jews — there is sometimes a discrepancy between Sevruguin’s handwritten notes on the negatives and the curator’s identification; in those cases I went with Sevruguin’s notes, since the museum’s identifications often seem problematic (a issue also noted by Armstrong-Ingram, pg. 412). Now onto the photographs! And please check out the archives yourselves!
Jewish village girl, ca. 1875

This photograph was already familiar to me, but I didn’t realize it was by Sevruguin, so it was a delight to come across it again. It shows a Jewish village girl bedecked with elaborate silver jewelry, a large floral wrap ('abayye), and hennaed fingernails. 

Her large disk and sheath amulets suggest that she is from the western part of Iran, perhaps near Kermanshah, Tabriz, or Hamadan, all areas with large Jewish communities. Sevruguin's first studio was in Tabriz; did he photograph her there? Or was this picture taken on one of his photographic expeditions? 

It is likely, because of her threaded eyebrows and forehead ornament (mu-band), that she is a newlywed bride; her hennaed nails suggest that it is about a month after her wedding (Sahim's description says that she is "dressed up for her wedding," 2002, pg. 180, but given her hennaed nails it seems likely that the photo was taken a few weeks after the ceremony). 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part II

This is part two of the series that we began last week investigating sap and wax resists. Those techniques use a liquid mixture that is drawn on the skin and dries, while the techniques we’re looking at in this post use malleable materials like fabric and dough to shape the designs that will block the henna.

One basic type of this resist uses a simple dough (flour and water) that can be rolled out into thin strands and arranged on the skin. One example of this technique comes from the descriptions of Bahraini wedding ceremonies in the 1970s recorded in Holes’ work on Bahraini Arabic dialects (2005, pg. 164):

Over the following two days [before the wedding] a specialist woman artist (xaḍḍaba [lit. painter]) applied henna to her palms, fingers and feet. This process was called ḥannat ‘ağin [dough henna]. A thin dough would be rolled, twisted and applied to the bride's skin in geometric patterns, leaving some of the skin bare. The red henna dye was then applied to the dough and skin and allowed to dry overnight. In the morning the dough was removed, leaving the henna pattern on the skin. The process was repeated on the third night, known as lēlat il-ḥanna, in order to make the henna tattoos [sic] stand out even more clearly. During these two days, special ditties accompanied the laborious process of decorating the bride.

This technique is apparently still practiced in the Arabian peninsula today; Penni AlZayer described it as she saw it being done in the 1990s in a rural village in al-Sharqiyya, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She writes that the hennaya [henna artist] worked by “rolling bits of dough from the bowl beside her into very long thin strings,” and then she “arranged and pressed simple spirals and geometric patterns first onto the palms of the bride’s hands and then the soles of her feet” (AlZayer, 2005, pg. 4). After the patterns were finished, the hennaya covered the bride’s hands and feet with henna paste and let it dry.

Kurdish Jewish woman shaping bread dough,
Israel, mid-20th century
Interestingly, a similar technique was practiced by the Jewish community in Sandor (or Sundur), a small village in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. An elderly immigrant from Sandor described the patterns, including celestial imagery in the palm and spirals around the fingers, that she remembered from her wedding in the 1920s (Sienna, 2011, pg. 88):

They would draw here [in the palm], like a moon, a beautiful drawing. [Noam: how would they do it?] They would make a dough, take dough, and put it on a little bit at a time. They would do it here [on the hands], whatever designs they wanted, and then they would put henna on over it... And then they would do the fingers, one by one, a little dough here [in a spiral], so that it would look nice. [The woman doing the henna] would bring the dough, take a little bit, roll it out thinly, thinly, and then put it on the hands, and then henna [on top]. And then [when it was dry] she would wrap [the bride's hands] up in cloth, so that she wouldn't move [and smudge the henna]. It would come out so beautiful, bright red, a strong colour.

While Henny Harald Hansen describes a Kurdish bride with palms “painted with a sun, a crescent moon and a star” (1961, pg. 130), it is not clear whether that was done with a resist or whether it was simply drawn on the skin. No other description of henna from this region includes reference to a dough resist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the technique was known and used by women in Turkey and Pakistan as well. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part I

Inspired by a comment in an online group for henna artists, I thought I’d explore some of the historical records we have for what might be called “resist henna”: using a impervious substance to create patterns on the skin and then applying henna thickly over it, so that the pattern remains unstained against a darkly-hennaed background. This technique creates bold and striking patterns, since the thick henna ensures a dark stain, and is especially helpful if the henna is grainy or not well sifted.

This post is divided into two parts. In this week's installment I’ll offer some sources for sap and wax resists, and in the next part I’ll look at string and dough resists.

For sap and wax resists, designs are usually drawn on the skin with a stick dipped in some liquid mixture that, when dry, will block the henna stain. M. Vonderheyden observed in the 1930s that Ouled-Naïl women in Algeria patterned their henna by dropping candle wax on their hands and covering it with henna, so that they had “white spots against the brown stain” (1934, pg. 46). 

In 1949 Raymond Mauny, a French researcher at the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, published a brief comment in Notes Africaines, explaining that on his way to Kiffa, Mauritania, he saw women who hennaed their hands “not with a simple application as is the custom in most Islamic countries, but having made geometric motifs to a most beautiful effect” (1949, pg. 116). One of them described the process to him as follows:
We take a stick with ash, mixed with gum or the sap of euphorbia, and we draw with that mixture the spots that we want to stay white. Then we apply the henna over the whole hand, which we then wrap with the large leaves of the tourja (Calotropis procera).

Mauny supplies the following photograph, noting that the left hand had been doubly hennaed, and the right hand only once.

Woman with hennaed hands, Kiffa (Mauritania). From Mauny 1949, pg. 116.

It looks like the designs here were made with multiple techniques: sap resist for the stripes and triangular pieces on the sides of her hands, while the diamond/cross shapes on the top and bottom of the right hand appear to have been drawn on directly, probably with a stick; her fingers, of course, have been solidly dipped (with a nice sharp line from the resist defining them at the bottom). The designs are clearly visible and very striking — anyone want to give them a try? Maybe I'll recreate them for another post.