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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 27, 2017

In a twist on their tradition, artists from Zanzibar put henna patterns on canvas

Written by: Bob Keyes
"Yungi Yungi (Waterlily)" by Saada Juma Mussa Photo by Jay York, courtesy of Alice Spencer

“Yungi Yungi (Waterlily)” by Saada Juma Mussa
Photo by Jay York, courtesy of Alice Spencer

Alice Spencer knew she was among a group of strong, enterprising women the moment she walked up to the third floor of a little building in the heart of Stone Tone, the old part of Zanzibar City in the African country of Tanzania. It was 110 degrees, there was no water and no power because a power supply cable from the mainland broke four months earlier.

“We had to be really inventive, but the women who live there are really used to these conditions. It’s what they do every day. They have to be enterprising,” said Spencer, a Portland artist who traveled to Zanzibar to teach art-making workshops. “We had no trouble doing the work that we set out to do.”

 A henna artist applies paint to a pattern. Photo courtesy of Alice Spencer

A henna artist applies paint to a pattern.
Photo courtesy of Alice Spencer

Henna is an ancient artistic tradition, with roots in Arab, Indian and African cultures. Using dye from the henna plant, women decorate their bodies for weddings, holidays and special occasions. Spencer has traveled to Tanzania many times, coaching them to paint their traditional henna patterns on canvas with acrylic paint and encouraging them to sell them in their gallery. She’s also taught them to make woodblock prints based on the same traditions. Examples of their work are on view at the Portland Public Library in March. “Zanzibar Henna Artists: Innovating a Cultural Tradition” opens with a First Friday Art Walk reception beginning at 5 p.m. and remains on view through March 25.

Spencer, a member of Peregrine Press in Portland, said the women were quick learners. “It was clear there was something that was beyond learned experience that was operating for them. I think for so many generations, their people have been working in henna. They had seen it all their lives. They grew up learning to do it and were now teaching their own daughters to do it. There is something that is almost inborn in them that understands this design language,” he said.

Spencer first traveled to Zanzibar in 2010. The next year, Peregrine Press in Portland collaborated with the henna artists on exhibitions in both countries. The exhibition at the library strengthens the ties between the two arts communities, and supports Muslim artists at a time when Muslims might feel maligned or unwelcome in the United States because of politics, Spencer said.

“There’s no better time for us to support this community,” Spencer said. “We have a president who is not supportive of Muslims and has created a lot of consternation and fear in that community. I think it’s timely to see some wonderful sort of supportive evidence of the gifts of this amazing community around the world.”

She hopes the exhibition at the library is a “starting point” for more exhibitions — in Maine and across the country.

Reza Jalali, coordinator of the University of Southern Maine Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, said the exhibition gives people in Portland – Muslims and others – a chance to learn about an artistic tradition that is being adapted in contemporary expression.

“It also humanizes our neighbors who happen to be Muslim,” he said. “It brings work by traditional Muslim artists into our community.”

“Zanzibar Henna Artists: Innovating a Cultural Tradition”

WHERE: Portland Public Library
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through March 25; reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday

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