Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Contextualized Henna Art

In today's post I'm happy to present the contextualized artwork of a missionary recently in the field. Mina Rowland (name changed for security purposes) has been a Southern Baptist missionary in East Africa and South Asia. In her work, she chose to explore the use of henna storying for evangelism.  Henna (also known as mehndi in Hindi) is a plant that grows in regions of Africa, southern Asia, Australia and Oceania. Among other things, it's used as a form of body decoration in the form of temporary tattoos, most often by new brides. Henna has been used to decorate women's bodies since the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean area (3000-600 B.C.), and today is used widely by Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.  Henna is even mentioned in the Bible in Song of Solomon 1:14 and 4:13,14.

Before reading the interview below with Mina, please check out this story about her use of henna storying.  At the end of my interview with her below, look for additional links and downloadable resources, as well as a related link about a henna art show. 

Here is my interview with Mina:

How long have you been involved in missions and how did you get started?
I felt called to missions when I was 13 years old and committed my life to missions at that time. Throughout high school and college I was really involved in mission projects with my church. Some of these projects were in the United States and others were not in the US.

Were you an artist before you started experimenting with henna?
No, I did not have an art background when I started doing henna. I know that the Lord gifted me for the specific purpose of illustrating Bible stories with henna.

Was art (henna or otherwise) on your mind when you became involved in missions, or did you discover it along the way?
I had heard that some other missionaries wanted to use henna as a storying tool a few months before my team mate and I moved overseas in 2006, but we had not planned on doing anything with it. In fact our job was to do something completely different. 

What are the purposes and symbolism of henna designs in the culture, and how do the biblical stories and concepts that you use compliment them, and how do they differ?  Are indigenous designs also typically accompanied by stories or meanings?
The purpose of the henna designs in the South Asian culture is just decoration. Women use it to decorate their hands and feet for special occasions, such as weddings. One Muslim friend of mine told me, "We wear it when we are happy." When I worked on the current set of story drawings, I wanted to put symbols in the drawings that would be easy for an oral learner to grasp, but they also had to look like a henna drawing. So, for example in the feeding of the 5000 story, I used two fish and then five flowers as a reminder of the five loaves Jesus fed the people with. Indigenous designs do not typically have stories with them. 

Why do you think that using henna as an evangelistic tool is a good approach?
Henna is a great evangelistic approach for several reasons. The first one is that it is a great entry strategy and bridge builder. Henna is also a great way to tell stories in a high security situation. It is also a great way for oral women to have a picture to remember the story by and as others ask them about the henna on their hand they can then share the story with the person who is asking. Henna storying is also something that can be easily reproduced in the culture by new believers as they go out and share Christ with others. 

What is your process for coming up with the designs?  Are the motifs taken from existing patterns, or do you create entirely new ones (or both)?
When I am working on a design I spend time reading the portion of scripture I want to draw and look for a word picture in the story. A part of the story that can be put in the henna design so the hearer can remember it easily. One example of this is in the story about Noah. At the end of the story God promises to never destroy the whole earth with a flood again, and the sign of his promise was the rainbow. A rainbow was easy to draw in the design. Also from the same story when Noah sends a dove out and the dove comes back with an olive branch, again that can also be easily represented in the drawing. Culturally, henna art will often have peacocks/birds in the designs, so this was easy to illustrate. Also, from the story about Adam and Eve, I drew a small picture of a fruit in the hand which is also an easy way for women to remember that story. Once I figure out what symbols to use its easy to put them in a henna design. 

The pdf design for the Creation to Christ story looks a little different from the one you create in the video.  Do you continue to tweek and alter the designs after you first create them?
I do sometimes tweak the designs, but I do not make huge changes. It may be just something small I may choose to draw differently or I may change the filling in a design. 

Do you have any other plans or dreams for using contextualized arts in missions?
I have wanted to start painting with henna on canvas. I have seen that done before and it is really beautiful, but I have not had time to try that.

If you had to do the henna ministry all over again, would/will you do anything differently?  In your experiences so far, what practices or attitudes have you changed along the way?
I don't think that I would change anything mostly because over the last few years when I have seen an area in which the project needed to change, I worked on changing it and tested it with nationals. What we did the first two years had to be improved so I worked on changing it and tested it. Things can always be improved upon and I feel like I am always learning. So I guess to answer your question, I am not sure I would change anything. 

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for other missionaries and/or artists who would like to explore using cultural art forms for missions?
If there is someone who would like to use art in missions then I would say try it out. Look at what the culture sees as art and use it as a way to share the Gospel. Work with nationals on the project, that is really important. The more you work with nationals the more you will have opportunity to share Christ and the more opportunity you will have to learn what the most effective entry strategy is. I would also encourage those who are interested in this to be a learner in the culture you are working in.

********************** End of Interview ***********************

Concluding Thoughts ~

I think this use of henna to tell the story of the Gospel is a great way to explore an existing cultural art form, while also transforming it (by using it to tell a story, which isn't typically done in with henna).  For downloadable and printed resources on the Gospel henna designs and party ideas, click here and for regional versions click here.

There is a lot of innovation going on right now in henna designs worldwide, so to add a narrative quality to the mix is in keeping with this new evolution of the art form (see examples of color henna designs here, and even jewel-encrusted wedding henna designs here).

I found a great website that describes all manner of information about henna- it's history, cultural significance, and regional differences.  It mentions that although the cultural significance varies from culture to culture, henna is typically used to celebrate major milestones such as marriages, or as a good luck charm, or simply for female comradere.  Wikipedia mentions that henna was regarded as “having 'Barakah,' blessings, and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty.”

Regarding using henna for brides, I wonder whether there are any Christian wedding traditions in the Islamic world or South Asia that incorporate cultural practices such as henna. What it would look like to use henna to celebrate various Christian holidays or festivals, such as Christmas or Easter? I think by incorporating a practice like henna into their faith, Christians all over the world could affirm their cultural identity and use these traditions to glorify the Lord as well, even if it meant transforming them into something both old and new...

Lastly, in the interview above, Mina mentions wanting to eventually paint henna designs on canvas. One missionary has explored this idea, even putting the paintings into a gallery show as an outreach in India. Each painting depicts a story from God’s Word and includes the story written in English and Hindi. To read more about this art show and the artist, please see my blog post here.


  1. Hi! Is there a way I can contact Mina? I'm very interested in learning how to do these henna drawings and the way she tells the stories! Thank you for any help you can give me!

  2. Hi Mary! I would suggest checking out the resources at the links below, where you can download patters, stories and other resources that Mina could provide. The links are: