Making real-life connections for students in the art room is one of the best ways to captivate them. The student demographic I teach is extremely diverse and often inspires the lessons I teach.
A number of students at the Nashville elementary school I teach at are of Muslim faith, the girls wear hijabs and, on occasion, sport “mehndi” on their hands. Mehndi, though not permanent, is reminiscent of tattoos, which many students think are totally cool.
After reading Nadia’s Hands—a story about a young Pakistani-American girl —my students were able to understand how Nadia felt about sharing an aspect of her heritage with the rest of her classmates. At first she was worried the other children would make fun of her for being different, but she finally came to terms with it.
Henna and mehndi are commonly used among a variety of cultures and religions, but the designs differ between groups. Mehndi designs are painted on hands and feet using henna paste, which is created from the crushed leaves of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), which grows in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The henna paste has been used for thousands of years: The ancient Egyptians used it to stain pharaohs’ fingertips before mummification. The Indian/Hindu culture uses mehndi in their wedding rituals as a means of good luck, wealth and happiness. Although mehndi is traditionally done on females, it is explained that males may wear it as well. (The boys in class are even more intrigued by the lesson when they learn this.)
The first class is spent introducing the students to the concepts of mehndi using a PowerPoint presentation that includes the symbols used, why mehndi is done, and how to create a background for their prints.
A wet-on-wet watercolor technique was taught to the students in creating a very translucent background for their prints. Students were also asked to choose either or warm or cool color scheme for their paintings.
When students arrived for the next class, they were asked to sketch their ideas for their mehndi designs. They were to use symbols we learned about (see sidebar) and they could even create some of their own.
Students then would lay their hands on a foam plate to trace, and then carve their design into the foam. Once their designs were completed, they rolled the foam with brown printing ink, and pressed it onto their dry watercolor background. Once the printing plate was released, I assisted with hot gluing it opposite the print—creating a set of symmetrical hands on the paper.
As students become acquainted with the cultures that use mehndi and henna tattooing, they also learn about accepting others for their differences. This lesson could be continued with students writing about the symbols they chose for their henna designs, why they chose them and what they represent. These processes could also be incorporated into a self-portrait painting or drawing, with handprints along the bottom of the artwork.
When teaching about diversity and cultures, the possibilities are many.
Elementary-level students will …
• create an original Mehndi design inspired by Indian culture.
• demonstrate understanding of the artistic process of printmaking.
• make connections between art and cultural traditions.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
• PRESENTING: Develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.
• CONNECTING: Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.
• 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, watercolor paints, brushes, water
• Foam plates, brayers, printing ink
• Pencils, scissors, hot glue/hot glue gun
Flowers: Joy and happiness
Sun/Moon/Stars: Deep, everlasting love
Water: Human emotion
• Beukel, Dorine van den. Traditional Mehndi Designs: A Treasury of Henna Body Art. Shambhala; 2000.
• English, Karen. Nadia’s Hands. Boyds Mills Press, Reprint edition; 2009.
• Glicksman, Jane. The Art of Mehndi. Lowell House Juvenile; 1998.
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Rachel Motta teaches art at Cane Ridge Elementary School in Antioch, Tennessee.
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