Sana Nisar grew up with henna as part of her everyday cultural landscape. Now the Charlotte artist wants to show how this ancient practice is an art form with endless possibilities.

Self-taught, Nisar has been creating henna designs, on people and objects, since high school. The 25-year old moved to Charlotte in 2019 with her husband but retains a loyal and large clientele in her former home of Columbus, Ohio.

Her freehand drawn floral and geometric designs have been turning heads here, too. Her Instagram account, @henna_by_sana, has nearly 3,900 followers.

“Charlotte has given me a lot of opportunities,” said Nisar, whose artwork was featured in “Love, Charlotte,” an exhibition of giant postcards displayed uptown earlier this year. “The creative community is very supportive and they all want to work together, and I love that.”

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Artist Sana Nisar freestyles a henna design on a client for a wedding photo shoot. Courtesy of Kharis Photography

What exactly is henna?

The henna plant has been used for thousands of years throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Africa for cultural and medicinal purposes. It can color and strengthen hair, dye fabrics and more. With natural cooling properties, it was used to control body temperature in hot climates. By dipping their feet to cool them, Nisar said, people discovered the pigment left traces of color behind.

The stain, derived from the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), takes on an orange to brown to maroon color, and lasts on skin anywhere from one to two weeks.

Today, many South Asian weddings and celebrations include henna body decoration. It’s especially popular during the Muslim holiday of Eid, which happens twice a year. But some women wear it year-round as a fashion statement.

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A henna design created by artist Sana Nisar. Courtesy of Sana Nisar

How she got her start

“Every desi household has henna … in the fridge somewhere,” said Nisar, who emigrated from Pakistan at age 5. “As kids, we would always have it. Our mom would put it on us, (drawing) a quick flower or something — to make us happy.”

Nisar remembers the first time she realized henna could create something extraordinary in experienced hands, when an artist quickly freestyled an intricate design on her at a pre-wedding gathering. Nisar, then a high school freshman, marveled at the artist’s creativity. “I couldn’t grasp that she could just come up with that,” Nisar said.

Her own first attempt at henna art was a virtual disaster. She had no idea what to do when her mother instructed her to run a booth at the local mosque during a community bazaar.

“(People) were feeling bad for me, so they started sending their little, little girls like 3- or 4-year-olds,” Nisar said. After fumbling her way through that discouraging experience, Nisar dedicated herself to getting better.

“I was practicing as much as I could, wherever I could,” she said. Studying traditional designs and experimenting with patterns, her skills and confidence grew.

Three years later, the line was out the door for her booth during Eid. The women who had once pitied her were now waiting patiently, some until 2 a.m., to have a time slot with Nisar. She eventually had to turn people away but realized there was a market for her creations.

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A henna baby blessing is among the designs created by Charlotte artist Sana Nisar. Courtesy of Sana Nisar

A side business

So Nisar started a successful side business, now in its 10th year. She continued through college, juggling schoolwork and a part-time job. She now maintains her henna practice 20-25 hours a week on top of her full-time job as a program coordinator at Steritech.

Meticulous work and bending for hours can take a toll on the body, Nisar said. Hand designs only take 30 minutes, but a full bridal session could last anywhere from four to eight hours, as hands, arms, feet and ankles are covered in elaborate, customized designs.

Despite the risks of back pain and carpal tunnel, henna is a passion for Nisar. “I love doing it, it makes me happy.” she said. “It’s therapeutic to me.”

How it works

Nisar only uses natural ingredients in her practice.

The traditional recipe is simple: Powder from crushed Henna leaves mixed with water and sugar. Essential oils can also be added. After that, the mixture sits overnight before it’s ready to use.

Nisar now buys her paste premade to save time. She stores it in the freezer in 4-inch plastic cones, resembling pastry bags. They’re perfectly sized for most individual clients.

While true henna is an orangish-brown, designs in black and white have become fashionable.

Nisar uses Jagua henna, a gel that comes from the tropical jagua fruit. Initially, it looks clear, which makes it harder to work with, but several hours after application, it develops a navy blue/black color.

White henna is really just body paint, Nisar said, and it washes off at the end of the day.

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Charlotte henna artist Sana Nisar’s “postcard,” pictured above, was featured in the “Love, Charlotte” exhibition uptown earlier this year. The 4-foot “postcard” highlighted Nisar’s intricate henna artistry. Courtesy of Sana Nisar

Henna as art

“Unfortunately, as much as people love henna, it’s so ingrained in our culture, that (some) people forget to appreciate the art,” Nisar said. “They think ‘anyone can do it, so what’s the big deal?’”

“I want to change that mindset because, no, everyone cannot do it,” she said, “and I know that firsthand because when I picked up that cone, I couldn’t do it.

“It takes years of practice to get better. I don’t think I’m the best at all,” Nisar said. “I think I have a long way to go.”

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