Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Roaring Twenties: Henna in 1920s Marrakech

I am super excited to be co-presenting at a weekend conference in NYC, Feb. 28-Mar. 1, devoted to Moroccan henna (and tickets are still on sale, until Feb. 20! Sign up here). I thought I’d devote a quick post to an interesting piece of Moroccan henna history that crossed my desk… For more, you’ll have to come to our workshop (FB event here)!

A while back, I received a gorgeous and mysterious postcard from Sarah Corbett, founder of the Henna Cafe Marrakech (a wonderful centre for henna and education), titled simply “Le Henné” [The Henna], showing a young girl sitting outside looking at the camera while having her foot hennaed by another woman.

"The Henna," postcard, Marrakech, ca. 1920, by Félix.

Then this week I came across what I thought was the same photo in Essai de Folklore Marocain [An Essay on Moroccan Folklore], a ethnographic work about popular beliefs in Morocco published in 1926 by Françoise Legey, an Algerian-born French doctor and educator working in Marrakech. Looking closely, though, it is actually a different photo, but taken during the same session.

"Applying Henna," Marrakech, ca. 1920, Félix. In Legey,
Essai de Folklore Marocain, 1926.

Here the little girl sits behind another woman (her mother, as we shall see), who is having her foot hennaed by the same artist. The photos are attributed simply to “Félix,” but thanks to the wonderful work of the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech, and the informative articles of Michel de Mondenard at the Mangin@Marrakech blog, I was able to learn a little more about the photographer and his context.

“Félix” was the nom de plume of Fernand Bidon, a French photographer who was born in Marseilles on April 26, 1883. He moved to Marrakech in 1913 and set up shop as a photographer and postcard producer, signing his photos with “Félix, photo-éditeur, Marrakech” and producing hundreds of images (mostly in black and white, with a brief foray into colour in the early 1920s) until the end of the 1930s. He lived in Marrakech until his death in 1963, leaving behind the visual legacy of 5 decades of street photography. Many of his photos and postcards are still reproduced today, illustrating such classic Marrakechi scenes as the old suq, the square of Jma’ al-Fna, the Koutoubia mosque, the Menara gardens, and more.

"A Street in the Mellah [Jewish Quarter]," Marrakech, ca. 1920, Félix.

In these two photos of henna, taken around 1920, we see a hannaya at work, applying henna with a small stick (perhaps a kohl stick, known as a merwed). In front of her is a large tray with several bowls which contain her materials: henna paste, a sticky sealant known as sqa (usually mint tea or lemon juice with sugar, garlic, and pepper), and protective substances like rue and salt (which will be explained below).

"The Henna," detail, Félix postcard.

The artist and her clients are seated on the ground outdoors, possibly in a courtyard, on a spread carpet with plenty of cushions. The artist wears a fringed headwrap (sebniya) and the girl has a beautiful headdress with a large coin; it also looks like she’s wearing a large khamsa or amulet around her neck. The photos appear posed, and in fact the girl and her mother reappear in another one of Félix’s photos published in Legey, where she explains that the girl’s silver anklet is for protection against illness and the evil eye, and that the mother has dedicated her daughter to a local Marrakchi saint, Lalla Zohra al-Kouch, buried next to the Koutoubia mosque; this devotion is symbolized by the long braid worn by the mother’s right ear, done by the muqaddema [guardian] of the sanctuary.

"A Devotee of Lalla Koucha," left, and "A Girl with Protective Anklet," right,
Marrakech, ca. 1920, Félix. In Legey, Essai de Folklore Marocain, 1926.

Unfortunately, the photos do not capture an actual henna design; it’s difficult to see if there’s any henna at all. But I think it’s likely that the artist was a real hannaya, and this is still a fairly accurate representation of how henna would have been applied in early 20th century Morocco. Another photo from 1926 shows what typical designs for the period, applied with a stick, would have looked like: bold and linear, with bands separated by parallel lines and an emphasis on triangular and diamond shapes.

Woman with hennaed hands (detail), Morocco, 1926.
In her book (also published in English in 1935 as Folklore of Morocco, but with different pictures), Legey describes numerous beliefs and rituals surrounding henna in Marrakech of the 1920s. She writes that henna was used not only for marriage, but also at a birth (for both mother and child), for circumcision, for ‘Eid celebrations, and to placate the ever-present threat of jnun [spirits].

“Small ordinary applications are done by servants,” Legey notes, “but the great henna [for weddings] is done by professionals called hennayat. The henna leaves are first ground, then mixes with rosewater or regular water, and applied as paste.” Before beginning the henna application, Legey describes the following ceremony (1926, pg. 218):
When one is applying henna, they prepare a plate where they place the bowl of prepared henna. They also put on the plate a dish holding harmel [rue], alum, and salt. This is an offering to the good spirits, and at the same time, protection against the bad spirits who could, through jealousy, cause ill to the woman to whom they are applying henna. Before starting the henna, they take a little bit of the paste and make seven small balls which they throw into the grate which serves to supply household water, while saying: ya mwalin l-ard, hada l-haqq dyalkum [O Masters of the Earth, this is your portion].

While Félix’s photos may or may not show this ceremony in action, his work still serves as important visual documentation of henna practices in early 20th-century Morocco, and this may in fact be, to my knowledge, the earliest photo of a Moroccan henna artist. It is an honour to follow in her footsteps. To learn more about Moroccan henna, don’t forget to register for our weekend workshop! See you there!

1 comment:

All things Angevin said...

So beautiful! I love the rue bit, that is amazing. I want to know more about this:)