Nialwak Athow was recognized as a master practitioner of henna in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts.
With her talent, Athow began working on a mural on the outside of the Lake Erie International Market in the City of Erie. She and an all-female group helped assist in the making of this mural. This all-female team has just finished creating a mural celebrating women’s right to vote.
Athow has lived in Erie since 2002, but she is originally from Sudan. She wants to spread the culture of Sudan here in the United States, specifically in the use of henna. In Sudan and other countries in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the temporary tattoo is a part of a celebrated tradition for the women.
Specifically, a lot of women get henna for Mother’s Day, Eid celebrations and Christmas. The most common event for henna, however, is weddings. In Sudan, if you are getting married, the bride having henna is as important – if not more important – than the wedding rings.
Despite her notable experience in henna, this was still a new type of art for Athow. When doing henna on people, there is a very limited space on which to work. The angles and surface are also very different. This new project took place on an entire building. In order to properly prepare, Athow had to learn from artists whose expertise was in the painting of murals. She listened to their advice while also not losing track of what she wanted to portray.
The owner of the marketplace, Shiekh Abdalla, is from Sudan himself, and was thrilled when Athow approached him with the idea. Abdalla’s traditional store helps people keep their culture and express themselves when living in the U.S., so the mural was a nice addition to the property.
Since Erie has a high Sudanese population, henna represents the culture of many immigrants to Erie. Abdalla was honored to be a part of it.
In addition to the mural on the building, Abdalla has wanted seating outside of his shop for some time. At Abdalla’s behest, local woodworker Armando Reyes, proprietor of Lake Erie Woodworks and Lake Erie Drumworks, made a wooden bench for outside the store.
Athow took advantage of this addition and used it as part of her canvas space, adding a little bit of artwork to the bench as well.
This mural was made possible by the Erie Arts & Culture organization through a grant provided by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The foundation has provided support in multiple projects that allow artists to portray their culture in new ways.
The Erie Arts & Culture organization encourages new Americans to create artwork that will help diversify the city of Erie in hopes of becoming a welcoming city through Welcoming America. This organization aims to help more cities become inclusive toward immigrants and different cultures.
If you wish to go visit the beautiful mural, the market is located at the corner of Brown Avenue and Cherry Street in the City of Erie.