Henna Hands   
2002  Site-specific project near the Cantonment Railway Station, Karachi

Henna pigment or mehndi played an important part in ancient rites and traditions for its qualities of healing, purifying and nourishing.   In the sub-continent it is popular as a natural cosmetic, traditionally used to decorate the hands of a bride before her marriage. Henna, an organic pigment, in its capacity to stain, to mark the body, works as a metaphor to suggest the physicality of the body.   The residue it leaves in the skin, embodies the notion of vulnerability, and a feeling of sensuality. 

Henna Hands is built up with henna pigment and applied directly to the wall through large and small scale stencils.

In an attempt to relocate Henna Hands out of the gallery and studio space, I have been working  in different locations near the Cantonment Station and Railway Colony, a working class area in Karachi. This mohalla / neighborhood is home to a multi-religious community of Parsis, Muslims, Christians and Hindus.  Most of the old buildings belong to the railways and the residents have over time been evicted from their homes for demolition and rebuilding of the area.


This body of work needed a ‘home’ and a different audience, as it did not belong in a gallery space with limited and selected viewers.  Walking along the road, I wanted the viewer to have a direct relationship to Henna Hands, in terms of scale and the physicality of the object-figure on the street. They were confronted with a different set of rules and material properties; where associations to the work came through sight, smell and personal history.

I realized as I worked, that I had to follow a different set of rules and the material properties were fundamental in guiding the nature of the work.  These materials relied on the gestural, the temporal, and the performative.

Reactions from the residents – conversations, additions to the work, censorship of body parts, have been indicators of how the community have viewed the work over a period of time.  In the dhobi ghat / laundry-site, the march of three women was all but scratched out soon after it was made. The images have slowly been erased, scratched, in part preserved, and integrated with the writing on the wall.  The residue of pigment remains, marking a different sort of web with graffiti; paan / betel nut stains and party political slogans.

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