Inside Frame Vol. 8

In the final volume of the spin-off of featuring friends “inside” FRAME, we sat with Azra Khamissa who is in the vanguard of bringing timeless, contemporary aesthetic into traditional practice of henna. The creative mastermind of her eponymous brand AZRA, she squeezes and pushes her way through a creative journey to spread the beauty of self-expression in the form of body art.

What is the origin of your creative journey?

I’ve been creating all my life – being creative is part of who I am. I remember when I was really young, I used to make jewelry with threads and sell it outside of my house. There was a time when I was a make-up artist and even tried making clothes. My mom is a fashion designer, so I would say that my childhood’s strive for creating was influenced by her.

How did you start your brand?

Back in 2014, when I just move back to Dubai after living in Australia for 7 years, I was trying to find myself again as it felt like a completely new, fresh stage in my life. I always create out of a sense of need. At that time, I was looking for a beautiful yet practical handbag but couldn’t find a fully satisfying piece. It dawned on me that I should make my own handbag. I started experimenting and finally came up with my first “Bullet” bag. Since the first release of the “Bullet” bag in 2015, AZRA as a brand has been growing.

Henna has often been incorporated into your work, bringing a beautiful cultural attribute. How did you decide to include henna as part of your brand, 5 years after since AZRA was found?

The idea of making my henna appeared a few years back, during my second workshop for Sharjah Art Foundation. It didn’t work out the way I originally planned so I put a pause on the henna production. But during the beginning of the lockdown because of the pandemic, I had enough time to gain the skills, tools, knowledge, and most importantly, the courage to finalize my research on creating henna. While this was time full of uncertainty and confusion in the world, ironically it gave me a main “push” to finish what I envisioned a while ago.

When did henna become a part of your creative journey?

Henna has always been a part of my native culture. I came back from Australia with a completely different perspective on fashion and design. I was inspired by the work of my friend, Alia Bin Omar. Her work represents traditional Arab aesthetic with a contemporary expression.

My “awakening” moment in realization of the true beauty of henna was at my friend’s bridal party. In traditional Arabic weddings, the bride throws a henna party before the wedding. The bride and her friends have henna by the artist, whilst dancing and celebrating. This tradition symbolizes the bride’s preparation to receive and share blessings for herself and her family. It was the first time I experienced the true essence of henna, as a form of art that invokes such a bright spark of feminine energy and brings this beautiful feeling of unity and sisterhood.

What was the first henna design you did for yourself?

It was a circle design that was minimal yet bold. It was the easiest shape to create, as all it required was just to squeeze and push. This design was also spontaneously a part of the first editorial shoot for my brand.

Did you find any misconceptions or limitations of henna?

I’ve always been confused as to why henna was only available in beauty salons or at supermarkets. It was upsetting to see that henna was not being presented as a traditional tool of self-expression in the form of body art. So, from the very beginning, I wanted people to be aware of the true essence of this ancient art and creative opportunities that it brings.

That’s why I feel FRAME is the perfect place for AZRA to be represented. As a one-of-a-kind concept store in this region, it brings a unique experience with an inspiring atmosphere.

What does the art of henna mean to you from a personal level?

Because of my South African and Indian background, I’ve always felt that henna is calling out to me. This deep, soulful connection with this form of art was proven in time. The longest period I went without engaging in the art of henna was only a couple of months. I feel a metaphysical importance of it – for the henna to be on my hands in shaping and building my reality. The practice of doing henna is similar to meditating. It usually happens late at night when I’m fully in tune with myself and letting my mind to channel an energy from within myself onto my hands.

Why minimalism is so important for your aesthetic?

In the complexity of life, we are seeking simple solutions. So, minimalism is an expression of this desire to simplify life. And another reason is that I seek to create something timeless. Timelessness is another way of sustainability. Visually, my minimalist design is delivered in a form of geometrical shapes or patterns. I feel like it reflects the natural force of creation. Everything in nature is in its divine order and structural harmony, trees, plants, planets, and our bodies.

Where do you see AZRA in 10 years?

I see it evolving. In the short run, my next product is a tattoo sticker pack, which will consist of different pieces of henna drawings that could be assembled into a pattern in many ways.

In the long-run, I want to make a bedspread, piece of silk to hang on the wall, dyed dress, or paint henna on the fabric. I want to find more ways to cultivate henna and evolve AZRA into a lifestyle brand.

Favorite fashion brand?

Comme des Garçons for the sentimental feelings I get about their shapes and avant-garde aesthetic, as well as Marine Serre, which was one of AZRA’s first social media groundbreaking designs inspired by her moon monogram. I also love her bodysuits that are in-sync with the skin.

Favorite three items from FRAME?

  • Asymmetrical Skirt by Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons from FW
  • Tie-dye hoodie by Brain Dead
  • Gochujang Bulgogi Onigirazu by YUi, a ramen house affiliated to FRAME