EAM Artscope: March 2016

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 Sudan, is a master artist in traditional hair braiding and henna techniques. She shared what it means to be a bride in her culture.


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. 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 2015. With the grant, the two were able to keep part of their cultural heritage alive.

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 Asha had mastered the technique if all braids had uniform thickness and all braid patterns were uniformly tight. The braids can last months and require little maintenance after the styling is complete. Both women were pleased with Asha’s progress. Asha 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 Asha [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.”

Asha picked up henna techniques quickly and is now able to paint beautiful designs on her daughters and their friends, who were her models for the apprenticeship. 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. A night of henna is common in many Arab, African, and Asian cultures as a means of celebrating and preparing a bride for her wedding ceremony. Women’s legs, arms, and both sides of their hands and feet are covered in intricate flowering designs for their big day. Traditionally unmarried women do not sport elaborate henna until their wedding ceremony. Afaf and Asha are quick to point out that a night of henna for a Sudanese bride also includes getting an elegantly braided hairstyle.

Afaf and Asha hope to earn extra income in the future by opening their own hairbraiding studio which will cater to the women in the Erie area. They are both very happy with the success of the apprenticeship and are excited to pass on their knowledge to their children who have lived in America their whole lives. But for now, they can only await for a marriage proposal in their community so Asha can fully practice the skills she acquired.