Home Forums African Artifacts/ art work/museum African Body Art: Basic Facts about Henna.

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    Victory Amah

      For so long, Africans have tapped their creativity through artworks, which range from sculptures, paintings, and drawings among others. On the topic of painting, it did not just end at wall paintings or paintings on canvas, it also included body art of different forms, some of which were permanent.

      Body painting as a colorful art did not only reveal creativity, it had various uses in African cultures; it was used to celebrate, initiate, protect, and mourn.

      These paints were mixed from natural ingredients and smoothed over the skin with either fingers, sticks, or grasses. The most common ingredients used to produce the paint were oil, clay, chalk, and ash. The people of the Dinka tribe, however, have once used ash, cattle dung, and urine to make their paints.

      These paints were highly symbolic and could be used as a means of identification; certain colors indicated a phase in a person’s life; phases like puberty, courting, marriage, and so many others. It was used as a coat of warriors, it could symbolize manhood and power, it was used to showcase the role of chiefs and sorcerers, but above all, it was an expression of culture.

      Henna was used in Northern Africa; the women painted their hands and feet with this reddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush for their weddings. The wedding designs were usually very intricate designs called Siyala.

      The Henna was one of the first forms of plastic expressions practiced by mankind, and it has its roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Henna is a flowery plant that grows 12-15 feet high, the leaves from this plant are now dried and crushed into a fine powder then made into a creamy paste with water and eucalyptus oil. The paste is now applied to the skin and left to sit for twenty minutes, it dies and flakes off, leaving behind a light orange tint that darkens to a brown-reddish color over 24-48 hours. They usually last for about 1-2 weeks depending on the care and skin type.

      Henna designs were also worn in ancient Egyptian times by mummies, it is also documented that Cleopatra herself used henna to dye her hair, paint her nails, and used it as an eyeliner.

      The use of henna does not only border on creativity and symbolism, but it also had medicinal benefits as it was often used to treat headaches, open wounds, burns, and stomach pains, and because of its natural cooling properties, it was used to reduce fever.

      Irrespective of all its symbolism and uses, it was not always used for a specific purpose; sometimes it was used “just because”. For instance, the Nuba men could apply full body decorations for the sake of fashion, it was a daily outfit.

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