It’s a chilly Friday afternoon when I speak to Farrah Azam, who is on the phone to me stood outside her training studio in London, ‘it’s the only place I can get signal’ she laughs. Despite the unconventional circumstances, Farrah is keen to share her story, her successes and her own rather unique use of henna. ‘I take elements of the tradition of henna that I like and apply them in a very modern and unique way, I guess it’s a bit of east meets west.’ Applying her designs to fabrics, candles and picture frames, her contemporary vision preserves a form of art that usually fades away on the skin. The final effect is beautiful and it’s not hard to see why her part time hobby has become a successful business. If you thought henna wasn’t for you, think again.
An obvious place to start then, where did your interest in henna come from?
Well I was studying psychology and criminology at university and always wanted to go into psychotherapy, but I got married and felt pregnant soon after graduating, which meant I couldn’t commit to four years more training. I had never been that artistic, but have always had a creative flair I guess, so started looking at some courses. Something threw me towards henna, although I’d never liked henna on the body, there’s something I like about the actual patterns. I did the henna course and really enjoyed applying the designs to paper. I found the whole thing quite therapeutic, but when it came to going off and doing it as a profession and painting people’s bodies, I didn’t find that very exciting or challenging. I remember doodling on a piece of paper and wishing there was some sort of way I could preserve it, so started off drawing my designs onto canvases. I now work on a variety of different things and really enjoy it; I’m taking elements of the tradition of henna and applying it in a very modern and unique way, so I guess it’s a bit of east meets west.
And how has your business developed over the years?
Well I started it off as a hobby and back then I wasn’t overly concerned with making money, I just wanted to do something that I enjoyed. Things started off quite slow but when I started selling a few pieces and got my work out there on social media, I realised a lot of people liked it and I started to take it a bit more seriously. Then because it was such a unique idea at the time, I was contacted by magazines and went on a couple of TV shows – this media exposure really got me noticed and motivated me to work harder. Recently I’ve worked on my first collaboration with Harrods, where I was hand painting Giorgio Armani perfume bottles. That for me was probably my biggest achievement so far; I’d never have imagined I could have come so far, from this being a hobby to working with Armani.
Amazing! I was going to ask you what your proudest moment has been so far, would it be that collaboration?
That would be one of them, but also starting up my training academy. Because what I do is so different, there weren’t any other courses like it, teaching henna inspired art, so I started a training academy. Since I started two years ago, I’ve had so many students and feel very proud that I’ve been able to train people, giving them something they enjoy and seeing them get the satisfaction I get out of it.
Good answer! Where would you say you get the inspiration for your designs from?
I think a lot of my inspiration comes from my travels – I love travelling to different countries, especially ones that are rich in culture and heritage. Also recently I’ve been to the William Morris museum...
Oh I love him! It’s in Walthamstow isn’t it?
Yes! I love his work and am very much inspired by his patterns. Also a lot of my inspiration comes from my culture, I love drawing plants and vegetal patterns.
Do you always have a plan when you start drawing with henna, or is it something which develops as you go along?
When I first started I had to look at things and keep stopping to plan where I was going next, now I find that my best designs are the ones where I improvise.
As someone who both did a course and now teaches, what would you say is the hardest thing for a beginner to get the hang of when learning henna?
I think the inspiration; finding inspiration and coming up with ideas as a new artist is challenging and a lot of beginners will start to just copy other’s work. I think your art should be a reflection of who you are. I’ve got different life experiences to the next artist – my work is going to reflect me, my life my experiences and I think it’s really important to go out there and find things that you love that are not related to henna. If I only got inspired by henna, then I would have the same designs as every other artist, but I look outside the box - like William Morris, a British artist who has nothing to do with henna. Bringing the two together is what makes my work unique and versatile.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I would say find things that you enjoy, that you like. Go to libraries, go to galleries, do research, find the kind of art you love and then have your own signature style by combining henna with these. These other sources of inspiration will make your work unique. I’d also say start simple and just work on getting that hand control, because when you are using a henna cone it’s not the same as a pen.
Great answer, finally then, do you think henna is becoming more popular and if so, why?
I do yes; I mean these days you even have these flash tattoos, which are almost like temporary metallic henna art. Henna has always been quite traditional, but I think more and more people are modernising it now. White henna is a massive trend right now too; lots of my friend’s who do body art are getting clients who are not necessarily from the Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi culture, but want to try henna.
Thanks Farrah, best of luck with everything!
If Farrah has inspired you to search for a henna course, why not take a look at the options listed on Hotcourses? With plenty of part-time and weekend options available, we’re sure you will find what you are looking for.