research * the future * culture

portrait of the artist as a cultural cosplayer

What you see on my hands is mehndi. I’m going away this weekend to attend an Indian wedding, and was invited by the groom’s family to a mehndi session at their home last night. What you see here is only half the finished product; the palms of my hands are so red with henna that DeathRay blinked awake this morning and started quoting Shakespeare. In retrospect I should have asked for only the tops of my hands to be worked on, because by the end of the night I could see how tired the artist was. She was very fast and very capable, but squeezing that little tube of paste must be hell on the hands. I feel a little silly for having asked for so much from her.

Mehndi is a very special thing — a freestyle explosion of colour and design that marks one as a member or guest of a specific community or event. I was really happy to be invited, because it made me feel included, and because I knew that my chance to experience it again might not happen for a while. But some of the women in attendance last night experience it regularly, either for holidays or the summer wedding season. They love it, and being there you immediately understand why: the mundane (a hand or foot) becomes immediately beautiful and precious, and the drying process requires that one do little more than sit and talk and share stories. If you’re lucky, someone might even feed you by hand, so that the paste doesn’t smudge as you pick up a spoon or a piece of bread. As one of the women said last night between baby-bird bites: “No food tastes as good as what your mother feeds you from her hands.”

I tried remembering the last time my mother fed me something by hand. I imagine it must have been back when I nine years old and practising for my First Holy Communion, and she pretended to be the priest so I’d know how to take the host. (Something PM Harper apparently still has trouble with.) She told me that when she was little, she and her siblings would practise Communion all the time with Necco wafers.

“What are Necco wafers?” I asked, the first time she told me this.

“They’re a kind of candy,” she said. “They don’t make them anymore. We also had these licktab candies, these little dots of sugar on paper. But they went away, too, once people started doing acid that way.”

“What’s acid?”

…And so it goes. Since I’m attending a family event this weekend, I’ll leave you with a quote from Amanda Palmer on families:

we decide with our creative minds who we want our family to be and we go out, hunt them down, capture them and then nourish them with all our mights. maybe this is something that artists are especially good at. we think things into reality, we don’t accept that things have to be Any Way at all.

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  1. They do make Necco wafers still, and candy buttons (licktab candies, these little dots of sugar on paper). They are made at the New England Confectionery Company (Necco) in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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