Henna artist Azra Khamissa has become an Instagram sensation for her non-traditional spin on this ancient form of body art. Instead of drawing traditional paisley shapes and floral themes, her designs emulate the sleek compositions more commonly seen in contemporary tattoos. This is not your mother’s henna.
Henna is an earthy, paste-like dye sourced from a flowering plant (or “henna tree”) used over centuries to temporarily stain hair and skin. It’s usually applied as an embellishment to hands, feet, and sometimes faces during Eid and for special celebrations such as weddings. The artform has been experiencing a bit of a rebirth, prompted largely by Middle Eastern millennials who are not willing to be permanently inked but still desire to express themselves.
Khamissa’s family background is Canadian-South African. They moved to the United Arab Emirates when she was 12-years-old. “It was a fresh start in a new country, and I went to an Arabic school in Jumeirah,” she said in an interview with The National.
“We’re Muslim, I was covering, and we started adapting to Emirati culture.” A decade on, her style is fully Emirati, albeit with a modern, trendy flair.
A trained chiropractor as well as a handbag designer, Khamissa added “henna artist” to her resume purely by accident. While waiting for a photoshoot of her handbag collection to get underway, she passed time applying henna to her hand.
“We were waiting for the model to arrive, so we just took a photo of the henna with a camel, and the picture was so cool – it ended up getting featured in ID Magazine,” said Khamissa. She continued to experiment with new designs, posting images on her Instagram account, soon attracting followers who admired her minimalist patterns.
“Traditional designs never really worked for me and my aesthetic, and a lot of girls obviously feel the same way,” she said. Her chiropractic training makes her very body-aware, “I look at the hand as a whole, so I use the joints and the different planes and try to incorporate the whole hand in the design,” she said.
Khamissa says henna markings can be used to convey messages that are deep and effective, much like tattoos. “It’s a way of expressing how you feel, and it’s also a great tool for Muslims who cannot or do not want to get a tattoo.”
Last March, Puma recruited her for a collection launch where she worked on guests’ hands in a makeshift tattoo parlor. The event was as daring as her designs, since conventional tattoo parlors are forbidden in the UAE.
Khamissa has recently launched her own Azra-branded henna cone, in time for the holiday. Made in Dubai, the henna is non-toxic and comes in a biodegradable plastic casing. Each cone costs Dh20 (about $5 US) and delivery is available within the UAE.
She believes that henna can also help third-culture residents or long-term expatriates, connect with their cultures. “My great-grandparents are Indian and it is definitely within their culture, and henna is a deep part of the Emirati culture.
“I’m very detached from my culture – my parents were brought up in South Africa, I was brought up in Canada and Dubai, but henna is one thing that I find connects so many different cultures together,” says Khamissa. “No single culture owns henna; it is just a plant.”
See more of her work on her Instagram page, where she posts as Dr. Azra – link here.