For over 18 years visual artist and body art professional, Aneesa Karim, has been creating stunning designs on people’s skin using henna. But the covid19 pandemic has changed how people live and work which forced her to make some big changes to her business model in order to keep her business alive.
Karim, 33, the owner of Diosa Body Art and Design, practises the artform of mehndi, the painting of the body using henna. Henna is a dye made by drying the leaves of the henna tree, grinding it into powder and adding ingredients, including water and essential oils, to turn it into a paste which stains but fades on the skin within a few days.
She told WMN her business came to a halt when the pandemic began in 2020 since most of her appointments were house calls which could take hours depending on the size and intricacy of her designs.
Instead of giving up, she decided to grow other facets of her creativity, and adapted her work to create more permanent visual art pieces.
“I wasn’t getting bookings, when I got them I wasn’t taking bookings, and I stopped doing house calls because I have asthma. So I had to adapt and evolve my business. Thankfully I am a creative so I said, ‘Even though I’m a body art professional, I have this skill of applying this medium to the human body. Why not use paint instead of henna and apply it to other things and focus more on craft?’”
In the past brides asked her to do decorate pottery or votive candles for their weddings so she expanded on that premise and uses her piping skills and applied it to decorating pottery, wooden keepsake boxes, candles and canvas.
Though different, she enjoys the change as she gets to take her time to explore and experiment with henna application techniques using paint, which is longer lasting.
She contacted Junckollage Gypsy Caravan at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain about selling her work at the store which the owner agreed to in September. She was later contacted by the owner of Greetings Gift Shop, a Hallmark store in Mid Centre Mall, Chaguanas, who wished to carry her popular hand-painted items.
“While the human body as a canvas for my artwork is always a welcome challenge, especially with design placement and the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends, I intend to continue producing more permanent pieces of art.
“I’ve had interest in my pieces from international customers, however, getting paid is not easy for small businesses like mine. While the option for wire transfer is there, it is not as cost effective. Paypal is the preferred method by most, which is not readily accessible to receive direct funds, including forex, due to our local banking systems. Obtaining a credit card for a small business is also not easy. This is a major setback to then growth and expansion of my business.”
The classroom artist for everyone
Karim was introduced to henna body art while attending Lakshmi Girls' Hindu College.
“I was the class artist so when a friend brought a henna cone from the puja store from the Indian Expo, everyone was like, ‘Give it to Aneesa. Let her figure out how to use the thing.’”
She always enjoyed drawing and painting, especially graphite drawing and water colour painting, and did visual arts at the CXC level. Doing mehndi flowed naturally with this ability so she asked her art teacher, who was from India, about it and was taught the basics.
She also did some research online, practised and started to enjoy doing mehndi which she did for friends and family for Divali and Eid-ul-Fitr before eventually charging for her work for pocket money.
“Henna was just a medium to draw with – squeezing henna paste out of a tube – and of course the human body is the canvas in this instance. It was new to me so it was a challenge but I was fascinated by the designs, the application, and the way it fades. It teaches you non-attachment too. Even when you love how it looks it doesn’t stay there forever. It fades out over time.”
Her intention was to do it as a side business to occupy her time while she waited for job interviews and call backs after graduating in 2009 from the University of the West Indies with her bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology.
She posted pictures of her work on Facebook where people shared her pictures and she began getting messages asking if she did house calls. Seeing it as an opportunity to expand her business, she agreed and her grandfather took her to her appointments, accompanied by her mother.
“It started to pick up from there. And I think I started at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of henna artists around.”
She explained that most of her clients got mehndi done for weddings and religious occasions.
“In Hindu wedding tradition, mehndi is one of the 16 adornments of a bride, known as Solah Shringar. In Islam, women often dye their nails and adorn their hands and feet, and men dye their grey hairs with it, as prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).”
In October of that same year, she did her first bride. Since then, bridal work has been her main source of income. But some of her regular her clients also do mehndi as a type of self-care and would get a design for Carnival, their birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions.
She said she enjoys educating people about mehndi and seeing their reaction to the new information. She also likes giving people the option for another form of body art other than tattooing – something they can experiment with, change designs and place it on different parts of their bodies.
“It’s not a religious thing unless you put religious or symbolic designs on your body. And it’s not something only for the East Indian community. There is actually evidence to suggest that the earliest use of henna was in Egypt, Africa. They used it as medicine to treat certain skin ailments, they used the flowers as perfume. That was the first use of it until it reached the Asian continent where they used the leaf as medicine as well as to dye the skin, nails and animal hide.”
Since the 2010s however, the mehndi market has become concentrated “with the way the wedding industry has blown up.” So she had to make herself stand out through her designs and marketing.
She also laments the lack of quality work and quality henna on the market. She said some artists were unaware of the dangers of instant staining chemical inks and gels that are marketed as henna.
“However, in 2016, I was introduced to other suppliers of the raw ingredients – high quality henna powder and essential oils – and soon began to mix my own henna paste fresh, and roll and fill m own cones.
“I began to appreciate and understand henna even more, through my growing practical knowledge of mixing henna into a paste – the texture, the stains, what works for me and what doesn’t, especially in a tropical climate.”
She added that in the beginning she did not have much information about mehndi design so a lot of her work was inspired by nature, textiles, and architecture in Indian and Arabic design. Now, she does a lot of non-traditional and fusion work.
“Mehndi styles vary from region to region and, depending on the region, different elements represent different things. Also, different ethnic groups from different parts of the world have their unique styles. I enjoy the challenge of incorporating several of them in a piece.”
She also prefers connecting with her clients before working on their bodies. She prefers to create designs with meaning so she asks about the clients’ lives and integrate elements of their lives into the design.
“I like to feel out the energy of my clients. I like to meet them before I book them so I know the kind of person that I’m dealing with and they could get to know me and know the person I am, so they could feel comfortable and trust me to do certain things.
“The work that I do, the art that I create, is not just for art sake, or just to look good. I want my work to have purpose, to be meaningful, to have a connection with the canvas, the human being, that it’s being done on. A reflection of someone’s energy, coupled with my energy. Much of my work is inspired by nature, spirituality, my travels and my connection with the people that I meet and who I work with.”
In addition to henna, she also offers jagua – a citrus fruit that produces a blue-black stain that could look like a tattoo – and occasionally, “white henna” which is a body paint or adhesive with pigment. The pigment stays on top of the skin instead of staining it and only lasts about a day.
“It’s been tough, it’s been a lot of work, it’s been a lot of ups and downs, not a lot of support from the people I needed it from, but I am a very determined person, especially when someone tells me I can’t do something. I believe if something is meant for you, it’s meant for you. If you love something, work for it.”
Workshops with UK company
Over the years Karim has hosted several workshops, and has been featured in various exhibitions and publications.
In 2016, she hosted workshops with Henna Visa, now Henna Ink’d, in the UK. In 2020 she did some local mehndi workshops, and was part of Henna Artists of the World Unite, a workshop on Instagram that helped people cope with the pandemic by learning how to do mehndi.
In February 2021, she was invited by Neeta Sharma of Mehndi Designer to instruct at a workshop at the annual Spring Fling Henna Conference in Oakland, California, which was virtual this year. She also collaborated with Khadija Dawn Carryl of Henna Sooq to create a series of short video tutorials for her website in April 2021.
Her work has been showcased at exhibitions at the Divali Nagar site, the Central Bank Museum, the National Museum of TT, and most recently the Rotunda Gallery.
She is also an amateur photographer and a freelance graphic designer, and is interested in nature and wildlife conservation.