Kenza B. was born in France, but her family is from Tizi Ghenif, Tizi Wezzu, Algeria, who moved in 1997. Kenza was born in 1998 and grew up in the suburbs of southern Paris. She studies computer science, and has transformed her side henna hobby into an admirable business. “I’ve always loved drawing and painting, working with my hands, so it wasn’t really a surprise for me to start doing henna,” she says.
Kenza grew up with a tradition many Algerians are familiar with: staining a circle on the palm of the hand the night before Eid. Already attached to her culture, around the ages of 9-11, she started to experiment with henna on her own, outside the familial occasions it was traditionally a part of. She grew tired of the dot and decided to take a toothpick, make the paste a little runnier, and see where her creativity would take her. At first, it was what you’d expect from someone that young who was just getting started. Her friends were impressed by the stars she decorated her hands with.
Around 13 or 14, she began to move on to Indian bridal henna, what people usually do when they enter the world of henna. “It’s the only thing you see when you research for henna ideas. That’s how I started. In the henna community around the globe, most people are more comfortable doing Indian designs so that’s how I learned, by copying, just trying to reproduce something, trying to acquire some experience.” She says her first attempt was poor, but it didn’t stop her. She was proud of herself for taking up the task. She says, “The more I tried, the more I was getting better. The more friends, strangers asked me, ‘Who did that on you? Can you do it on me?'” But Kenza wasn’t prepared to charge for her services, “I didn’t feel it was enough to get paid.”
Yet not too long after that, she got her first job doing henna at 15 years old for her friend’s cousin. “That was really exciting and really scary.”
From India to home
When looking for more inspiration at 16 or 17, a year or two after starting to do henna professionally, she came across an Instagram account (@kenzilisa) owned by a henna artist based in New York. “All she did was Moroccan designs, what she saw on her trips to Morocco. When I saw that, I thought ‘Well that’s familiar. I know that. I can do that.'”
She continues, “Because what people meant by Moroccan designs was just Amazigh designs, you know? So all things geometric, lines, everything that is Berber. I started to do more research on Moroccan and North African henna, I was just blown away.” While she still appreciates Indian designs, she notes the difference. “North African henna can be heavy, but always delicate because of the lines and shapes. There is more order in North African designs than Indian designs, in my opinion.”
People loved the switch. “They thought it was so much more interesting because all you’d see was Indian henna. People wanted something new, something different. While this isn’t something new, because North African has been there for awhile, it was something we don’t really see in France or the internet.”
Kenza started embarking on this style by using reference pictures, both old and new.
“Usually people will come with a design in mind and ask me to do it. That could be something they found on my Instagram and they want me to replicate, or something they found somewhere else and that’s kind of my style.”
“I don’t really have a favorite thing to do, but there is something I always gravitate towards.” (Photos below)
“The things I enjoy most are the things that make me stand outside my comfort zone, like when someone asks me [to do] Mauritanian style, that’s something very intricate and that I don’t always master but that challenges me so I’m very happy about that. Or when someone asks me to do something really floral, like leaves on the entire hand, that is something I really like doing, or just working with lines.”
The artist and her muse
Kenza usually does henna at the client’s place, a coffeeshop, or somewhere outside like a park where there’s good lighting so she can see comfortably and be able to be precise. It is typically at the client’s house, “I really like talking to my client. I really like learning about what she does and what is interesting to her and creating a relationship.” Kenza remembers what each of her clients do for a living or study, “I have a pretty good memory. Each time I see an old client, she’s always surprised that I can remember little details about her life and I think that’s cool, it’s a more friendly environment.”
“Sometimes they tell me about their problems, and I can help a little bit. I think it’s cool to have a stranger to talk to. I really don’t like when it’s silent. Well, there are moments to speak and others to stay silent, so it depends, but I like to talk, talk about me, talk about her.”
“Honestly, sometimes my clients are so funny and so interesting, that I should be paying them because I spend such a good time doing henna on them. I really like those kind of clients. I have two clients, they come every year for Eid and I do their henna. They’re two sisters, and I love them so much. They are so funny, I spend such a good time with them. There are people I look forward doing their henna.”
Although doing henna hasn’t been a newfound realization of Kenza’s relationship to her heritage as it’s always been present in her life, she says she thinks it has become a part of her. “My family is so proud of me for doing it. My aunts are always saying, ‘Oh that’s so pretty. Look what Kenza did to her hands.'”
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be doing henna all my life. First of all, it hurts like hell. Whenever I do henna on someone’s hand I have to lean and really concentrate. I have a tendency to get bad cramps in my hands and back pain when I lean too much. I don’t want to be hurting when I’m older, so I don’t think I’ll be doing it professionally for a long time. However, I don’t want to stop doing it. I really look forward to the day I have a steady job and I’m doing henna only for pleasure, with my friends, my friends’ weddings, doing it with the people I like or the clients I really connected to while I was doing it professionally. I would do henna parties, not for money, just for pleasure for doing it to the people I like, for Eid and special occasions. I think that is something I’ll definitely do but I don’t want to build a big, big business. That is way too stressful and tiring.”
“I don’t want my Instagram page to die, I still want to keep it going, show what I can do and share my art with others who do henna. Maybe inspire others to start, help people who want to try. Maybe sell henna cones or do tutorials for people who want to start doing it, I think that’s a really good idea.” You can find Kenza on Instagram here and reserve an appointment with her here. You can also learn more about the North African henna business here.