Saadiya Boutote teaches a 5,000-year-old art form

The Art of Henna: Beautification and female bonding

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 9:30am

BELFAST — At 32, Saadiya Boutote has a lot on her plate.  A full-time employee of Athena Health and a new mother of a six-month-old daughter, Boutote often winds down by drawing intricate symmetrical designs on her hands with henna, a body art practice that dates back more than 5,000 years.

Boutote grew up in Zimbabwe and would often watch her mother draw designs with henna. Henna is a plant which grows in the tropical climates of Africa, northern Australia, Middle East and southern Asia. The familiar rust-like color comes from the pigment in its leaves, which, left upon the skin for an hour or two, will cause staining. 

“My mom bought me henna powder when I was about six or seven and let me mix it up and play with designs,” she said. “I didn’t think much of it when I was young, but I really came to appreciate the cultural aspects of it as I got older. With my Indian heritage, it was practiced when you got married and when there were special occasions.”

Ten years ago, she moved to the United States for college and got married soon after. Following new career paths, Boutote and her husband then moved to Maine from New Jersey in 2014. When not working, Boutote would practice her henna design skills on large blown-out eggs, similar to Pysansky, the art of Ukrainian Easter egg design. It was a calming, meditative way of honing her skills. Only recently has she begun to branch out into teaching henna as an art form to people in Maine’s communities.

For awhile she had a booth at The United Farmers Market in Belfast, selling her homemade henna kits and talking with people about the art form, but with the birth of her daughter, she has had to scale back her time to only doing a class a month.

The henna powder is mixed with water and essential oils. Boutote demonstrated how it works. She unwrapped a cone of henna and clipped the tip, so that the mixture came out a pinhole, similar to piping icing on a cake, but on a micro scale. She then applied the design to the inside of her pinky finger.

“If I were to leave that on for an hour or more, it would produce a deep, reddish stain,” she said.

Other variations of color to the henna powder can make the color darker, sometimes to black. A benefit of applying henna is that the “tattoos” are temporary. A beautiful circular flower Boutote designed on the palm of her hand is a light rusty color. It took about an hour and will last about a week.

According to Mendhi Mama, a website dedicated to the application of henna as a body art (called Mendhi), designs on the palm of the hand symbolize opening and offering, while designs on the back of the hand symbolize defense and protection.

The henna compound Boutote uses is completely organic, allowing one to change the designs from week to week with no health-effects. Recently, at the request of a pregnant woman in her eighth month, Boutote did a full belly design for the woman. The dark ink pattern emanated from her naval as the center point, which is how many henna designs are created— with a central point or circle.

“It’s like a mandala,” she explained. “You start with the center circle and keep forming concentric designs around that.”

“The idea of henna has always been around beautification,” said Boutote. “Today, we have manicures and pedicures, but centuries ago, women from different areas and regions would come together fo special events and apply henna to one another. Every bride would have a henna night. It was like a social bonding experience for women.”

Boutote finds that the practice of applying henna, whether she’s teaching a class, or explaining her craft at a booth, or just giving a demonstration, is still very much the same kind of social bonding here in Maine with women.

“I have really found a community here and people seem to be fascinated by the cultural aspect of it, so it’s something I hope to keep doing,” she said.

Follow United Farmer’s Market of Belfast for announcements of Boutote’s future classes:

Kay Stephens can be reached at