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Friday, January 22, 2016

How did the Henna Caravan girls get started, anyway?

Jessica and Carissa, Festival ~2006
People are always asking us "How did you get started in henna?" My answer: "My sister made me!" It's true, but not many people know how Jessica McQueen first came to henna, and how we started Henna Caravan as a family project.

I've known Jessica my whole life, after all she is my big sister. When I was born, she couldn't wait to play with my hair, share shoes, and go on tons of adventures. Wouldn't you know I always hated people doing my hair and I have weird tiny feet? So options 1 and 2 were right out. But option 3? We have had many adventures together, and Henna Caravan is just one of them.

When I began working with Jessica, I was only 12. My mom, Flavia, told me I had to go help. There wasn't even an "or else", I just had to. I was doing the sisterly duty, keeping her company at weekend festivals, whining when I got bored, and basically being a nuisance. She didn't mind, though. She was discovering how to turn her passion and talent into a business. She was making her living as an artist!

Jessica at Cajun Festival, 2010

Jessica studied painting at the prestigious California College of Arts in Oakland, Ca. She immersed herself in the vibrant cross-cultural melting pot that is the Bay Area, and through her studies learned about myriad forms of beauty and traditional arts. Henna was one of these arts. At the time, information on henna in the western world was very limited. The internet was shiny and new and slow. The books on henna were nonexistent. The only way to learn was to talk face to face with the people who knew.

Jessica McQueen, 1999
And so my big sister started her quest to find out everything about henna. She would talk to shop owners in Little India, who shared their henna powder, much of it sifted for hair use. Pakistani immigrants would clasp her hand and say how she reminded them of their family members who were still back in the old country. North African women would nod and drop a bit of family knowledge - "You use lemon sugar on top, right?".

Jessica McQueen, 1999
With all these different people, learning about henna was like a treasure hunt. Recipes back then were like Grandma's secret marinara sauce; you never quite got the whole picture. But it was fun to piece all the puzzles together, and Jessica soon became nearly obsessed with henna as an art, a women's craft, and a beauty practice.

Ask her now and she'll gladly say how ugly and messy her first designs were. I only wish I had a picture to show you all of those very first attempts. We could all smile together and remember our early goes at swirls and humps and fills, all a bit sideways and wibbly, but filled with joy. In my opinion, Jessica always made something beautiful and elegant, right from the very start.

Henna was just starting to make headway into western consciousness at this time- mid/late 90s. Those early festivals, Jessica would take a book and a chair and sit all day, giving henna to 5 or 10 customers, answering questions for a lot more. Then Madonna and Gwen Stefani and a half dozen other pop stars were sporting hennaed hands and anklets, and suddenly every teenage girl worth her crop top and platform flip flops needed henna!

Filming "David Tutera" ~ 2011 

This was where my mom and I came in. The festivals went from slow, to steady, to frenetic. People waited in line for an hour for a little anklet or an arm band. My mom and I would talk to customers. We'd explain to anybody who would listen what henna is. We would show them designs and help put on lemon-sugar sealant. One day,  the line was particularly long, so my sister threw me a bottle and said "Get to work sister!"

And that, more or less, is the story of how Henna Caravan got started. Mom, Jess, and me! There's nothing better than getting to spend every day hanging out with your best friends, sharing art around the world, and playing in glitter. We're very lucky ladies.


ilah85 said...

Love your artwork! You're my idol..

Melanie Jean said...

Beautiful story. Thank you.

Melanie Jean said...

Beautiful story. Thank you.