Monday, April 28, 2014

We Heart Moroccan Henna: A Design Tutorial from Marrakech, 1977

I had a great private appointment a few days ago with a lovely group of young women who loved henna, and when I showed them some examples of different styles they all chose Moroccan designs! I love doing Moroccan-style henna so I was really thrilled.

One of the best ways to work on your Moroccan style, as with any style, is to look for photos of henna from Morocco and copy them! In an earlier blogpost I explored Moroccan body art in the early 20th century, but here in this post I thought I would share some more modern photos I recently found, which are a fabulous step-by-step documentation of the ‘Moroccan’ style.

The photos were taken in Marrakech in 1977 by Bruno Barbey, a Moroccan-born French photographer (if you like photography, Barbey has several books of his photographs of Morocco which you can see here and here). I found the photos on the website of Magnum Photos, an international photographic co-operative which Barbey joined in 1964. The description states: “For marriage, bride has feets [sic] and hands painted with henne [sic]” — I assume, then, that this photoset shows a bride being prepared for her wedding but I have no more information than that.

What’s wonderful about this collection of photos is that the neqasha [henna artist] is demonstrating the traditional application with a kohl stick (merwed) rather than the newer syringe method which was just becoming popular in the 70s. Even better, Barbey has wonderfully captured the artist at work in a series of images, and so we can see the progression of the design.

The design begins. Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.
The fill here is typical of this style of Moroccan henna, which is often called ‘Fessi’ (from the city of Fes or Fez) but was also done in Marrakech as well.

Now the fingers! Bruno Barbey,
Marrakech, 1977.
Notice the use of parallel lines to separate shapes, and the fairly simple repetition of motifs: crosses, triangles, sprouts/trees. It would appear that the zigzag ‘chain’ that we know and love, used in between elements or as an edging motif, is here replaced with just dots along the edge of a line; I suspect that the zigzag was an innovation developed once artists started using syringes rather than sticks.
As seen here, she has a little glass cup of henna paste in one hand and holds her stick with the other, dipping it in and draping lines across the hand. 

It looks like she draws all the outside lines for the major shapes first, then fills them in, and then does the fingers. Once she’s finished the hand, she does the palm, and then the other hand.

Stay still! Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.

Here we can see her whole set-up: braziers to keep the bride and her henna warm, a bowl of mixed henna paste, and next to it the lemon-sugar syrup and rags for dabbing the paste to keep it moist and sticky. This syrup is known in Morocco as sqwa [literally, ‘rinse’] and is usually made with lemon juice, sugar, and crushed peppercorns and garlic cloves! 

Do I smell garlic bread? Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.

For a bride, though, the garlic and pepper would be replaced with cloves or orange blossom water, or the ubiquitous sweet and sugary mint tea might be used instead (Spurles 2004: 164-165).

It’s also interesting that the neqasha is so young — perhaps she’s still working today! After she finishes the henna she fills in the fingertips, although it looked like the bride had her nails painted nicely already! Oh well.

Sorry about your nails. Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.

And here are both the finished palms: 
All done! Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.

And while we don’t see what happens afterwards, it was likely wrapped up, in cloth or unrolled cotton balls, and then removed the next morning.

A Muslim bride taking off
her henna, Rabat, circa 1980.
(This henna was likely
done with a syringe: note the
sophistication of the pattern).
Traditionally in Morocco the dried henna was still treated with respect, especially during the bridal ceremonies, and so it is not thrown on the ground or in the garbage. Other items with spiritual significance, like bread, were treated in a similar way.

When it came time to take the henna off, it would be carefully rubbed off with rosewater and herbs into a special bowl and then disposed off in running water after the marriage (a custom practiced by both Jews and Muslims; see Spurles 2004: 92, 156-158, and Sienna 2011: 133).

We don't have photographs of that ceremony for this bride; probably Barbey wasn't invited — one wonders how he got access to this in the first place! Was he a relative of the bride? Did he know the artist? Or did he just ask around if anyone would be willing to let a photographer document their ceremony? He grew up in Morocco until the age of 12, so presumably he still had plenty of connections. 

Barbey did photograph the fresh stain, probably the next day: looks great to me! We can see many (although not all) of the elements we associate with ‘classic’ Moroccan style: the dividing of the space into large non-overlapping shapes, separated by parallel lines, and subdivided into basic shapes for fill; the fill includes chevrons, crosses, sprouts, trees, and the ‘doubled tree’ (like on the index finger of the bottom hand, for example). 

Notice especially the way the fingers are filled with alternating kinds of fill, some that take up the whole finger and others that subdivide the finger into smaller shapes. 

Mabrouk! Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.

I love the inclusion of the hearts — while it’s not exactly a ‘traditional’ symbol, it is certainly used in Moroccan henna and adds a little modern touch (it was the 1970s, after all), a little symbol of love for the upcoming wedding. I hope that our anonymous bride had a long and happy marriage, that our anonymous neqasha had a long and prosperous career, and that you enjoyed this step-by-step exploration of traditional Moroccan stick-application henna. I was inspired to do my own interpretation of this design; there's something charming about its rustic awkwardness, its simple fills and basic lines. Feeling inspired? I’d love to see your interpretations!

Henna by Noam Sienna, 2014

Resources on Moroccan henna:
Butterworth, Kenzi, and Nic Tharpa Cartier. Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco. Self-published, 2010.
Sienna, Noam. Old Patterns, New Skin: Jewish Henna Ceremonies and the Politics of Heritage. BA thesis. Brandeis University, 2011.
Spurles, Patricia Kelly. Henna for Brides and Gazelles: Ritual, Women’s Work, and Tourism in Morocco. PhD. thesis. Université de Montréal, 2004.
Vonderheyden, M. Le henné chez les musulmans de l'Afrique du Nord [Henna among the Muslims of North Africa]. Journal de la Société des Africanistes, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 35-61, 1934a.
Vonderheyden, M. Le henné chez les musulmans de l'Afrique du Nord (Suite et fin) [Henna among the Muslims of North Africa (Continuation and End)]. Journal de la Société des Africanistes, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 179-202, 1934b.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I've been cited, I've been cited! What an honor!