Loretta Roome,
Mehndi: The Timeless
Art of Henna Painting

(Griffin, 1998)

Mehndi is the art of henna painting. Used in many southwest Asian and northern African countries, it involves mixing a powdered plant resin and an active ingredient (such as lemon juice or strong tea) and painting the resultant paste on exposed skin. Henna generally leaves red-brown markings for up to three weeks and beyond, depending on the level of care given to the design.

It is not, however, permanent. There is no piercing of the skin with Mehndi -- it is a surface body modification for those not quite able or willing to do permanent designs.

I fell in love with the intricate patterns of Morocco a few years ago, and had my designs professionally done several times before deciding to try it out myself. Mehndi by Loretta Roome, a full-fledged henna artist, was my first foray into this world.

The best thing about Mehndi, as opposed to other books of its genre, is the way Roome doesn't just focus on the act of applying the paste, but also of the meaning for each design. Certain designs have certain meanings and it's best to know those ahead of time. Wandering around with a wonderful spiral pattern that looks great but means that you're widowed might have an adverse reaction from people who know their stuff.

There is a design dictionary of sorts, a color photography section in the center that is sure to inspire and a complete listing of where to get the supplies and what to look for. The history section is in-depth and includes quotes from sacred texts that prove Mehndi's historical significance in the countries where it's practiced. The care section will tell you how to make the designs last, as well as how to prep the skin beforehand.

But does it work? The answer is a resounding yes. By following all the instructions I could find, I had a henna party of two a few months back. We mixed our paste, let it "rest" and applied it similarly to one of the color photographs on our hands and feet. When I was able to wash it off, it was light and underdeveloped, but deepened over the next 24 hours into a dark, rich reddish-brown that I hadn't been able to duplicate, even with professional applications.

Loretta Roome knows her craft, and knows it well. (Incidentally, it is her hand that graces the cover. It is her right hand, and she is right-handed. She painted the intricate, perfect design with her non-dominant hand. Amazing.)

If you're thinking at all about picking this up, either as a historical reference or as a how-to guide, you won't be disappointed. It's a thin book, only 162 pages including color plates, but it is jam-packed with useful, practical information for the common person to use. Her tips on building a design of your own can be of use to the budding henna artist, and anyone with an interest in cultural topics can find use for the symbology directory. Just on a visual level, this book is a treat for your eyes -- the photographer should be well-lauded.

And if you like tattoos, but don't like that whole permanence thing, this might just be what you're looking for.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 15 February 2002

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