When talking about traditional cultures in one place, artisan crafts lose no time floating through many minds. In addition to traditional festivals that hardly anybody doesn’t take part in, conventional artisan crafts are often treated as the most important part of local culture, as a result of its harmony with many people’s daily lives. Manufacturing products such as characteristic clothes can directly enter the market and be used by people, and works of art also exist in the streets as decoration and bring spiritual enjoyment to residents. This inseparable relationship makes the artisan crafts deeply engraved in local histories, as well as maintains its passing in the modern era where streamlined production populars.
However, this unique way of passing the traditional crafts has also got its unique disadvantages. In the course of their history, many of those traditional crafts had been labelled as specific gendered labor due to the simplification of its users and objects. Although the widespread gender discrimination in human history has indeed had a great impact on this, the idea of gendered labor has not completely dissipated until today. Today, with fewer and fewer people interested in traditional crafts, such prejudice is fatal to some passings of those traditional crafts.
In this project, we invited a traditional craftsman from Sefrou. She would introduce to us her professional craftworks – henna, and its related history, as well as the impact of gendered labor on it.
Introduce about henna
Henna is a sort of powder with dyeing effect to people’s skin, which is produced by mashing dried henna leaves into a paste. After this paste is applied to one’s skin, lawsome migrates through the outer layer of the skin and produce a chemical reaction, creating stains on one’s skin.
When decorating with henna, users typically keep the paste on the skin for four to six hours or more. In this process, some sugar/lemon mix may be dabbed on the paste to prevent it from falling from the skin. After then, the paste would be brushed or scraped away using cooking oil, leaving the henna stains on the skin. The completely new henna stains are orange after the paste is first removed, and darken through days to a deep reddish brown, lasting within one to three weeks.
In Sefrou, henna is commonly used when one is passing through life cycle events, especially when women are experiencing weddings. A “henna ceremony” is usually held a day or during the current week before the wedding celebration, when guests are invited to apply henna to the bride. Residents believe that this would ward off evil spirits who may be jealous of the new couples, which will let them form a happy marriage from then on.
Fatima’s artisan history with Henna
The lady who welcomed our interviewer Zineb El Azhar is Fatima, and her full name is Fatima Bentouh. In her memories, she never had an education, married young and stayed with her husband’s family until she had her first born. She got married at 17 years old and moved into Sefrou in order to help her children have a better education and settled there later for she finds Sefrou to have better living conditions.
Stating by Fatima, it was in her 20th that she first got to know about henna. After approximately 12 years of practising, she has now become a very skilled henna craftsman. At first, she applied, henna was only one of the hobbies for her concerning art crafts, but through time passes, it already became her profession and main source income, and the ordinary hobby has turned into her favourite job as well as main hobby.
When it came to the situation of Fatima’s business in Sefrou, she claimed that her henna productions are heavily requested in a lot of occasions as well as events in Sefrou and around the whole country of Morocco. Despite the progress of the times, the ancient tradition of using henna still remains and is widely being used by people in Sefrou, and Fatima can still get customers today from friends of friends, recommended to whoever needs the job done, making her able to take care of her family financially.
When it came to plans for the future, Fatima expressed her love for henna saying she does not see herself not practicing this art craft anytime soon and wishes for things to remain the same. Her family supports her as well as her husband and she is the only one in her family with this hobby/job. Her plans for the future would be to open her own shop for henna and expand this art craft in hopes of inspiring more generations.
Gendered labor issues related to henna
In history, henna has been used to decorate young women’s bodies for social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age across Mediterranean, and is continue to use till today. Although men would also use henna in some ways, such as the grooms in the weddings, most of the time henna exists as cosmetics for women. Through the long length time, this craft has gradually been labeled as female exclusive, and making henna has also been seen as part of gendered labor, causing a great impact on this industry.
According to words from Fatima, she only knows about women who practise henna, and she has never seen a man take on this craft. She states that she would be very pleasure and has not issue with it and even volunteer to teach if a man was interest in learning henna, but based on the general phenomenon, no men is interested taking part in this. According to Fatima’s family, the craft is for women since no man has ever showered interest in learning or practicing, not that they would object to it. With more and more choices able to be selected today, few people would like to take part in the passing of traditional skills. All those issues have caused a great blow to producing henna, and made its inheritance more difficult that the past.
However, both life and henna are still full of hope for Fatima. She is still practising henna through days, and welcomes any men or women of all ages if they are willing to learn. When asked about her children and if she would ever teach her daughter this craft, her response was that for her daughter, education comes first. She said she would love it if her daughter took on the same hobby, but had no objections to the opposite which seems to be the case. While she was saying so, there was always a smile on her face hanging.
Producer of this exhibition:
Zineb El Azhar (Interview produce)