EAM Artscope: September 2017

East African Bridal Hair and Henna

An upcoming marriage in East Africa means a night of henna for the bride. Afaf Kormouna, an Erie resident who is a native of South Sudan, is a master artist in traditional hair braiding and henna techniques. She shared what it means to be a bride in her culture.

“Henna is important to African people because it is traditional for women. We can never have a bride without henna. The bride gets henna from the toes to the knee and from the ends of the fingers to the elbow. The bride sits for one whole day so people can draw lots of henna on her. First the groom’s family comes and paints henna on the bottom of her feet, then artists finish with decorations. This is the only day she will get this much henna. In traditional African culture a good daughter never wears makeup. She can have a little henna on her hand but that is all. She does not show off her beauty. When it is time for her to marry, we make her so beautiful with henna, makeup and beautiful hair. She looks like a princess. This way the family can thank her and be proud of her and show off her beauty. When a girl is getting married sometimes she is scared. She is afraid of becoming a woman and how her life will change. The day we spend doing henna she can cry. We take this time to encourage her. We talk to her about when we got married. We tell her not to worry.”

The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts recognizes that traditional arts often need support to survive in modern culture. The state awards grants to master artists to pass their tradition down to capable apprentices. In 2015 Afaf Kormouna received a grant to teach her traditional art to Asha Herba, both of whom came to Erie as refugees escaping the civil war in Sudan. Afaf taught hair braiding and henna to Asha throughout the year. In 2016 Afaf received another PCA grant to pass henna and hair braiding to two other South Sudanese women, Fatima Athow and Regina Kak. These grants have allowed this important cultural heritage to flourish in Erie.

The women met, on average, three times per month on the weekends. Hair braiding is time consuming and requires a great deal of patience for both the artist and the model. Some of the styles take upwards of eight hours to complete. Because of this, the women spent most of their apprenticeship focused on several hairstyles, like the bob. The bob is a full head of braids but at the end of each plait the hair strands are left loose; it is named after reggae superstar Bob Marley. Other styles are microweaves, tirkiba, and kinky twist. Afaf would know if her students had mastered the technique if all braids had uniform thickness and the braids were uniformly tight. The braids can last months and require little maintenance after the styling is complete. Afaf is pleased with the progress her apprentices made. Asha Herba said, “People see my daughter’s hair and ask if I can do their hair now! But I still give them Afaf’s number because she is the best. We hope to work together on new clients.”

Afaf reflected on her role as tradition bearer, “After I teach hairstyles I learn more. When I start I was a little bit afraid because I never teach someone like this. It helped me get better. I had to think about it in a new way… [This apprenticeship] made me come up with new ideas. I am a better teacher and I am also a better artist.”

All the apprentices picked up henna techniques quickly and are now able to paint beautiful designs on their daughters and their friends, who were models during the apprenticeships. Henna refers to both the flowering plant and the dye prepared from the plant. Traditionally, the dried plant is grounded into a paste that is then applied to skin creating a reddish temporary tattoo. Today, henna powder is easier to buy and transport, and only requires water to create a paste. Sudanese henna artists also use black hair dye as it appears more prominently on darker skin and allows the artist to use more than one color in their designs.

Afaf elaborates on henna, “All Sudanese do henna. Here in Erie we discover that all ladies who speak Arabic know henna, and other African ladies from Congo and Somalia also do henna. We also see the Nepali people in Erie also love henna. The one thing that brings us together is the importance of the traditional wedding. In the wedding, there is always henna for the bride and the other women in the wedding.

“Henna is important to us because it how we celebrate special days. It makes us look a little different but beautiful and that makes us happy. It is impossible to do a wedding without henna, it is just as important as the wedding dress! Right now a friend’s husband is visiting Africa. When he comes home, she must have henna to show him that she is happy to see him. Hair is just as important as henna. If I have henna on my feet, I can’t just leave my hair. It all goes together! People look at our daughter’s hair and if it doesn’t look good they say I am not a good mother. If I have nice hair and my daughters have nice hair everyone knows that we are organized, we have respect, we run a good and clean house.”

Henna is markedly different from American tattoos. Not only is henna temporary (usually lasting about 10 days), it reinforces deep cultural respect and tradition whereas the origin of American tattoos were bold counterculture expression. Henna is applied to the hands and feet, traditionally the most visible skin where women dress extremely modestly, while American tattoos are often placed where they can be easily covered. Despite these differences, henna and permanent tattoos both are used to mark important life events. Henna is integral to wedding ceremonies. Permanent tattoos often memorialize the birth or death of a loved one.