The Evolution of Ancient South Asian Traditions Through Henna Artist Sabreena Haque
Written by Minali Aggarwal
Cultural appropriation has been a topic of heated-debate over the past few years, especially with the increasing presence of social media and Instagram culture. What is cultural appropriation? Typically it’s taking some idea, practice, clothing, or symbol from someone else’s culture without an acknowledgement of its origin, without respect, and usually for profit or gain. But, is there a way to share cultural practices and traditions without all these negative consequences?
Sabreena Haque, henna artist and owner of Ritual By Design, would say yes, and she wants to help people learn how to do it. According to Sabreena the key is being educated, understanding boundaries, and most of all, having respect for a culture, and rocking where you come from.
Sabreena started Ritual By Design because she wanted to be a voice for South Asian culture in the Bay Area, and to help educate people about the ancient origins of mehndi and the rich traditions attached to the practice. At the same time, she aims to be a contemporary voice for South Asian culture. She embraces not only the traditional art, but also the evolution of culture, which puts her in a unique position to educate people in a way that’s relatable and relevant.
We talked to Sabreena about the origins of Ritual By Design, the henna communities both in the Bay and worldwide, and how to respect henna culture without appropriating it.
Minali: Why did you start Ritual By Design?
Sabreena: Well, I always wanted to be an artist, but I also wanted to do something that would share my culture and traditions, and be able to keep that part of who I am represented in my work. It wasn’t until I moved to California and saw other artists doing mehndi that I decided I wanted to pursue it and be a South Asian voice in the henna community.
Minali: How do you share your culture?
Sabreena: Education is definitely a huge part of what I do. It’s not just about doing the art for people, but I feel that I have the opportunity to share knowledge about the traditions behind it. When people see a henna design on someone, they want to ask that person questions, so I want people who are having the art done to have answers about where henna comes from. A big part of it is just giving people the right language to talk about it. Even for us being South Asian, we didn’t have the language to answer difficult questions like “what does it mean?” It’s hard to answer the question even if you’re Indian or South Asian because we know it as an art and a ritual that we do before happy occasions that are deeply part of our culture. It’s a symbol of joy and celebration, and a way to embrace your culture and show who you are.
Minali: What kinds of things do you teach people about the culture?
Sabreena: I want people to know that mehndi actually comes from many parts of the world and not just South Asia. The plant itself grows in desert areas, which is why you see it in the Middle East, and Africa, and South Asia. It actually originates from the Middle East. A lot of what I advocate is that, you know, if you’re a henna artist and you want to learn about the origins of henna, definitely do that and be educated, but also just rock where you come from. Don’t put a bindi on and wear Indian clothes and think that you’re doing it justice by doing all that. Just rock where you come from and make it your own.
Minali: How do you communicate this in a non-confrontational way?
Sabreena: It’s definitely hard. There’s a whole industry around it now, so I think the best thing that I can do is have one-on-one interactions with people, either when I’m doing henna for them or teaching a class, that’s where I can teach the right words to use when talking about it, and show that there’s no one right way to do it other than, you know, just showing respect.
“Just rock where you come from and make it your own.”
Minali: What’s the henna community like?
Sabreena: This is a tough question because I do feel like I’m a bit of an outsider in the Bay Area henna community. There’s a South Asian henna community, which isn’t very present in the city, and then there is another community, which is American. Since I live in San Francisco, I’m not totally part of the South Asian community even though I’m Pakistani. They always are welcoming of me, but they also do very traditional work, and I like to do a mix of things.
Minali: Where do you draw your inspiration from as an artist if not the traditional designs?
Sabreena: Hmm, from everywhere really. I like looking at fabrics. You know, we’re very lucky as artists because we get to have a person in front of us, so I like to draw inspiration from that person. I like to learn new patterns and do something that hasn’t been done before. I like to try something really far out and refine it until it works and is unique to my style.
“While we want to be the ones representing our culture and traditions, and want to be the face of it, we also want to be the ones that are constantly evolving it.”
Minali: Who are your henna crushes?
Sabreena: Instagram has made it totally accessible so I follow a ton of artists all over the world. There are some in India that are blowing my mind like Kamaljeet and Kinjal Mehndi Art. There’s Henna For All in New York.
Minali: Are you part of the online henna community?
Sabreena: I try but I feel like a little bit of an outsider. I would love to meet more like-minded people online. I have definitely found henna artists through the Internet that I admire and have become friends with. I actually met a good friend from London that way. I saw her work in a VICE article where she was showing South Asian Queer women, and showing this bad ass side of South Asian girls. It was very colorful, very retro. I reached out just to connect and tell her how much I loved that piece, and through reaching out I found out she was coming to the Bay and was able to connect with her in person. I love meeting people who are on that same spectrum -- taking something really traditional but being part of the evolution of it. I’m drawn to artists who are taking traditional art to the next level but representing traditional art along with it.
Minali: That’s really cool, so you’ve been able to find more like-minded people?
Sabreena: I think more and more there is a community coming together around this kind of desire to be part of the evolution of traditional art. There’s a movement of South Asian creatives coming together and bonding over being South Asian in a Western world, and learning how to navigate that. There are really cool women like the Rebel Ranis who are two South Asian cousins who talk about being South Asian and the relatable struggles of what it’s like to be modern South Asian women. While we want to be the ones representing our culture and traditions, and want to be the face of it, we also want to be the ones that are constantly evolving it.