The Spirituality Behind the Art of Henna

After her sister had a bad experience with a henna artist, Mumtaz Mohamoud wanted to do something about it. As a joke, she told her sister she would learn to do henna so that a situation like that would never happen again, not knowing that it would change her path. 

“I said that not knowing that those words would be part of my eight-year journey and that henna would love me back. I’ll never forget that night,” Mohamoud said. 

Mohamoud is now a self-taught henna artist local to Ottawa who quickly established herself as one of the best in the city and what started as a joke is now a critical part of Mohamoud’s identity.

 Born in Somalia but raised in Canada’s capital, Mohamoud initially studied to become an early childhood educator and currently juggles that role part-time along with practising her passion. 

As she studied part-time Mohamoud was looking for something to fill her time. 

“I’ve always wanted to be some kind of artist because I do like to paint and things like that, and henna ended up being the thing,” she said.

Without any prior experience, Mohamoud ventured out to a Middle Eastern store and purchased some henna cones to practise while watching tutorials on YouTube.

 However, she soon came to find that it was much more challenging than she expected.

 “I couldn’t even draw a circle,” Mohamoud admitted.

 “It was something that my brain wasn’t used to and that hurt my ego, so it was very frustrating at the beginning. I wanted to quit because it was difficult for me,” she said.

 After seven and a half years of hard practise, however, Mohamoud reached a place where she became comfortable with henna – comfortable enough to be capable of designing a full piece in under a minute. Upon taking her skills to the public, she received amazing feedback and now participates in big and small events alike, including Glowfair, night markets, and the monthly 613 Flea event.

 What sets Mohamoud apart from other henna artists is her attention to her product. She is firm in her belief that henna should be sourced and mixed fresh from its growing place.

 “It took me six years to perfect the henna mixture,” she said. “Now I mix it fresh, I go to an event, I get rid of what’s left. That’s just my standard, and it’s worth paying a little more because you deserve the best on your skin and the experience that comes with it.”

Photo provided by Mumtaz Mohamoud

Henna is naturally derived from a flowering plant called Lawsonia Inermis and has been used since ancient times for both medicinal and beautifying purposes. The leaves get dried then turned into powder, which artists can use as a paste that can stain the skin from seven to 14 days. It is now a cultural staple in North African as well as South Asian countries but has been gaining rapid popularity all over the world.

With all that she has learned Mohamoud hopes to start workshops in the future to educate other henna artists about the importance of using freshly mixed henna.

“I don’t want people buying cones online, I don’t want people buying cones that have been sitting for three months in a grocery store. I want them to make fresh henna and use high-quality products for their skin,” she said.

However, henna’s popularity doesn’t come without its own set of problems, especially where cultural appropriation is concerned.

Many believe that henna is a cultural staple and should be used exclusively by those whose countries harbour a long history with it. Mohamoud, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same sentiment.

“I think that because henna comes from mother-earth, it doesn’t belong to one group,” she said. “It would be very helpful if they’re aware of what it is. I want them to have knowledge about why other cultures use it and a little bit of the history.”

Mumtaz explained initially, henna was used medicinally to cool the body down in hotter countries, especially for brides who were anxious before their weddings. Early civilizations then decided to begin experimenting with using it for design and beauty purposes as well.

“You can dye fabric, your hair, your skin. It’s just amazing, we’re so lucky to have it,” she said.

Photo provided by Mumtaz Mohamoud

Along with henna body art, Mohamoud also creates professional henna-inspired art that people can frame and put up in their homes. Through these pieces, she hopes to use her gift to make a difference through her new fundraiser, the Henna Heart Project.

Inspired by her aunt, who after a car accident uses a pacemaker for her heart troubles, Mohamoud donates five dollars of every piece she sells to the Ottawa Heart Institute.

“That experience, that difficult moment for my family, has made me reflect and say, ‘How can I use my art to better someone else’s life?’ Because I don’t want to just do art if it’s not going to connect to another human being or make a difference,” Mahamoud said.

Her goal is to raise 10 thousand dollars. “I just wanted to feel like I can give back as a young healthy person,” she said.

Photo provided by Mumtaz Mohamoud

Mohamoud calls her relationship with henna a blessing, and says she values the experiences and relationships it has brought her.

“What inspires me and keeps me going is the wonderful human beings I get the privilege to connect with,” says Mohamoud. “I’ve met people, I’ve cried with people, I’ve laughed with people, and it just shows you that regardless of religion, race, gender orientation, henna is just a vehicle to connect.”

As for her future with henna, she doesn’t see it ending 

“It’s really about being with another human just briefly and forgetting about labels for a bit,” she said. “For me, that’s the most beautiful part. I need to honour that, and I’m going to do it as long as I’m able to.”