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Q+A: Melanie Ooi of Blue Lotus Henna

Over her 17-year career, she has featured in Vogue India and at the Portland Saturday Market, while also advocating for henna education and safety.

A woman wearing glasses and a black tank top with colorful, poofy earrings and a nose ring sits in front of a sign that reads Blue Lotus Henna

Melanie has been practicing henna for 17 years.

Photo via Blue Lotus Henna

Much like the intricate designs she creates, henna artist Melanie Ooi captures your attention right away. Most evident are her decorated hands and Kiwi accent (she originally hails from New Zealand), but upon spending more time in her home parlor, the stories of her life and her knowledge of the art form will leave you in wonder.

At Blue Lotus Henna, music and aromatherapy melt the stress away — providing a sanctuary for diverse clientele, from excited brides and expectant mothers to cancer patients. We spent an afternoon with Melanie to learn more about henna and the upcoming screening of her award-winning documentary, “World of Henna,” at Clinton Street Theater.

What exactly is henna?

Henna is the term for many things: the plant itself, the dye (lawsone) from the plant, and the designs drawn with the paste made from the plant material.

How is it made?

Henna paste is made by drying and grinding the leaves into a fine powder. It is then mixed with water or lemon juice, certain essential oils and sugar, allowed to sit for several hours to activate the dye, and then transferred to an applicator cone.

How does it work?

The application method involves drawing designs on the surface of the skin with the henna paste. The dye soaks into the epidermal layer of the skin as the paste sits on the surface. The longer the paste sits, the better the stain (6-12 hours is ideal). After scraping off the paste and oiling the skin with olive or coconut oil, the dye will oxidize over 72 hours, darkening from light orange into a deep chestnut brown to burgundy shade. The stain will last one-to-three weeks, slowly washing or sloughing off with the skin cells.

A close up of henna design being applied to a hand

City Editor Cambrie was the day’s canvas for Melanie’s artistry.

How does henna vary from culture to culture?

Henna is used for the same basic purposes in all its cultures: for blessing, protection (from the evil eye), for celebration, beautification, soothing, and cleansing. What you will notice is the difference in design styles and subtle differences in times of application and on exact placement. The nuances are many and can be learned about in my documentaries.

What has the filmmaking process been like for you?

After many years of working full time as a henna artist, I was ready for a slight shift in focus. Filmmaking was a childhood dream of mine, so it made sense to combine the two creative interests, especially to film in a country and culture that I love and am fascinated by (India). Part of the incentive to make a high-quality documentary was to create an educational piece that I could share with the henna community.

You and fellow filmmaker/henna artist Erika Ryn saw success with “World of Henna”; where are you at with “World of Henna: Morocco”?

The timing of the first film was fortuitous in that we returned home from filming in India shortly before lockdown. So we were able to utilize our free time in 2020 to complete the editing (very ambitiously) and have it ready for release at the beginning of 2021.

With the second film we are being a lot easier on ourselves and giving it at least a year to complete. Waiting on our interview translations has slowed us down a lot, but we have to be patient with the process, and actually, it helps to give space for the ideas to breathe, which is crucial in filmmaking (and not always a luxury that filmmakers have).

Tell us about the screening event happening at Clinton Street Theater on Sunday, Jan. 22.

This screening will be a fundraiser event for post-production expenses for the second film. It’s also a great opportunity to see all of the amazing footage on the big screen. We’ll be showing the first film set in India and then some bonus reels and teasers from Morocco. There will also be a short Q&A with the filmmakers.

What was your first introduction to henna?

Because of my teenage interest in Indian culture, I was aware of henna for many years before getting close to it. Eventually, a friend taught me how to roll a henna cone and mix the paste. I then copied from Indian henna design books to learn the motifs and compositional styles specific to the art form. From the moment I picked it up I felt connected to it and my natural illustrative abilities made it reasonably easy. So from there, I built my business up over many years with dedication and perseverance, constantly improving and developing my style as an artist.

What does it mean on a personal level to be a henna artist?

Humans have been using the henna plant for medicinal, ritualistic, and decorative reasons for thousands of years (more than 5,000), so working with it now makes me feel connected to this legacy. It is a beautiful relationship between the plant and people. You can see this in how even people from non-henna cultures are instinctively drawn to henna. All humans are attracted to the healing properties of wearing the sacred henna stain. So the satisfaction that I get from practicing my art is huge.

What is the henna community like in Portland?

It is small and pretty close-knit in terms of the real professionals. We often work together at weddings and other gigs. Recently our population has diminished with several of our talented artists either moving away or retiring from the business for other pursuits.

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