In conversation with Zaenab BS Imaduddin
Foreword Fatema A.
Zaenab Bensaab is truly one of the most inspiring women I have had the fortune to meet. When I first came on board to be a part of her vision, “route to success”, I was a blubbering mess. Lost. Clueless. Unaware of how to address her or anyone else in the room. Despite all my initial fears, not once in the ensuing 10 days did I feel the need to be conscious again. There is this inexplicable sense of calm around her. It envelops you completely- soothes you even. She’s effervescent yet eloquent, compassionate yet unyielding, has an impeccable fashion sense without compromising tradition- she is a phenomenal blend of dichotomies.
But I think the thing I admire the most will always be her willingness and readiness to assist those with a plight.
Once I was accompanying her up a staircase, and a khidmat guzaar was helping carry a suitcase. As is the case with most, he was bubbling with araz after araz. I was contemplating whether or not to point out the obvious to him- maghrib was drawing nearer and bensaab was clearly rushing.
“Su naam kidu tame?” “Ha zaroor- me kais.” Though not the entirety of the conversation, I remember being absolutely dumbfounded. In between dashing up the staircase, the distant uproar of “Maula Maula” and the general hubbub of Ashara, she heard every word the man said without the slightest hint of impatience.
Did I forget to mention- she also has an artistic streak. I have always been a fan, and am so excited to bring her on board for a conversation and glimpse at her first signature Arabesque painting collection- INÃSH
I was raised in beauty.
A little bit about yourself. Do you have a background in art?
I was raised in beauty. I used to be consumed by the artistic creations in my home. The Ikebana flower arrangements done by my Nani and Amma. Ridas designed using floral sprays, created by using crochet flowers, cross-stitch, or collages made from printed material. Lovely table decorations, well-presented food, tasteful jewelry. Gift wrapping and Milad backdrop decorations. So most of the credit goes to my extremely talented, hardworking, creative, ingenious and encouraging Amma!
My first attempts with my tiny hands was at our preschool in Saifee Mahal where I was always dabbling in creativity. Amma introduced free play methods and free form of art was encouraged by giving us large sheets of paper on easels and many colours to try out. In my junior school where art became more formal she may have had a few lines of worry when I could not contain my colours within the petals of flowers. But one never to restrain or constrain us, today she takes pride in our originality. That must have been my first official abstract art experience!
Later, I took art in school and used to do well and sometime around tenth grade, I attended formal art classes to learn different techniques and a little bit of theory. Finally, when I was staying in Cairo for a few years, I was formally introduced to abstract art techniques by Professor George Fikry, an exceptionally talented artist. He encouraged me to promote my art professionally. However, it was much later that I realized how much I enjoyed painting and designing and immersing myself in beauty.
Abstract means something that is not trying to represent reality… For me, abstract art is a conversation between my subconscious mind and the canvas.
I know a lot of the work you do is Abstract art. Now this is a concept I have struggled with since Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Red Blue and Yellow sold for $50.6 million dollars.
How would you explain abstract art to people like me? And what does it mean to you?
Before we talk about abstract art, let’s talk about the fundamental principle behind art. In the Rasaail of Ikhwaan al-Safaa’, Maulana al-Imam Ahmed al-Mastoor states that “a piece of art can only be truly appreciated when it is in harmony with the highest order (nisbat afdhal), it is well balanced and well proportioned. Otherwise it is incomplete.”
Since art is about balance, the same applies to abstract art.
Abstract art came into existence during the 20th century. It is a visual language. Abstract means something that is not trying to represent reality. This kind of art is an artist’s unique depiction of reality using shape, form, colour and lines. It is a truthful representation of the world as the artist sees it. With abstract painting, the piece can be “about” the paint on the canvas, as with Abstract Expressionism; it can be “about” the process of painting for an artist personally; it can even be “about” the meaning of abstract art itself!
Some helpful questions to evaluate abstract work like the above is to ask yourself these questions:
Does the painting convey a mood-state or atmosphere?
What does it prompt you to think about?
Are you confronted with a particular color or shape?
How does what you’re looking at make you feel?
For me, abstract art is a conversation between my subconscious mind and the canvas. I use abstract art as a means of self-expression and to explore what lies beneath the surface. The use of colors helps relieve the pressures of my sometimes demanding schedule. I am particularly drawn towards shades of blues, turquoise, aquamarines, jades, corals, lavenders and lilacs, which all tend to calm my senses. Since art is supposed to be a treat for the ‘eyes’, I also use certain techniques for creating soothing works when looking for an outlet. Similarly I make use of reds, yellows and purples when I want to let off some steam!
Recently you had an exhibition- that must’ve been very exciting, tell us about it.
A businessman in Mombasa had seen my work some time back. He encouraged me to exhibit my work in Kenya and offered his support and guidance in doing so. I took this up as a challenge. A team of art dealers helped me as well. They gave me excellent feedback about the kind of market that would appreciate my work. I felt super-charged and encouraged to continue creating beauty for a wider market. I have much to learn and explore. Inshallah,this is just the beginning.
I also have a larger goal of creating a platform for young aspiring artists to showcase their talent. I hope I can help pave the way for them.
…INÃSH. It is an Arabic word which means ‘to revive’
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Since my days in Qahera (Cairo), I have been awestruck by the geometric beauty of Fatemi architectural motifs and Kufic Arabic inscriptions on the façade and walls of Fatemi Jawaame’. I have always wanted to experiment how these motifs could be replicated poetically on canvas. Instead of copying them exactly as they existed, I created contemporary backgrounds that would excite the eyes by daubing the canvas with colourful acrylics and having my ensemble of artistic enthusiasts infuse them with these traditional motifs using digital technology.
INÃSH looks at the architectural edifices on the streets of old Cairo, laced with Kufic inscriptions through the lens of abstract art. It also attempts to recreate the calligraphy and arabesque seen on wall plates and brass ornaments hanging on the shops of al-Moiz le Deenillah Street, where the waft of Arabic coffee and fragrant bukhoor (incense) pleasure the senses, giving one a wonderful sense of nostalgia!
I would like to mention the art enthusiasts without whose contribution, INÃSH wouldn’t have been a reality. Shukran to Aamenah BS, my skillful niece and business partner with exceptional taste, and Fatema Mustafa and M. Mukarram Moosajee, our excellent graphic artists and Sk. Qusai Sk. Shabbir for introducing INÃSH, to a world of vectors!
Which artwork is your most favourite? What was the inspiration behind it?
I love the French impressionist Monet’s ‘Water Lilies.’ They give me a sense of tranquility and immerse me in nature. The palette is also very soothing and opens one’s eyes to the myriad ways of depicting reality.
…Hang in there till you find your unique style.
Top 3 lessons you’ve learnt as an artist to guide those currently pursuing art?
Lesson 1: Find your strength as an artist and don’t mimic someone else’s style. Art is about patience so hang in there till you find your unique style.
Lesson 2: Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of expressing your uniqueness.
Lesson 3: Enjoy the creative process.
Do you ever tire of your signature style? How do you keep things fresh?
I am an explorer and am not afraid of failure; I experiment with different subjects and styles and like to see what ensues as a result. I stick to my strengths but constantly try to create work that is aesthetically appealing to a wider audience.
It takes me back to the glorious reign of the Fatemi Imam’s in Cairo and make me feel closer to our heritage, our roots.
What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to inspire your work?
My main inspiration is Fatemi art and Arabic architectural monuments motifs and medallions. The Kufic and calligraphic inscriptions in Al-Jami´ Al -Anwar, Al-Aqmar, Al-Juyushi and Al-Lulua, urge me to represent them on canvas using various techniques. It takes me back to the glorious reign of the Fatemi Imam’s in Cairo and make me feel closer to our heritage, our roots.
I also love nature and currently am consumed by the awe and beauty of African wildlife and exploring how artists have painted them in different mediums.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on my next collection- ‘Hungry Buffalo’, a series of abstract art depicting the wildlife of the Nyakasanga valley in Zimbabwe.
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA, always praised my art by saying “ghanu acchu che”
Words to live by… a favorite quote or motto?
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA, always praised my art by saying “ghanu acchu che”. Once, after my paintings had featured on the front and back covers of the book ‘Al-Aqmar- a living testimony to the Fatemiyeen’, and soon after it was presented to him, I was standing for shifaa’ at his Surat residence, and he expressed lovingly with a tabassum “taru naam bhi aavi gayu che” – acknowledging the worth of my tiny contribution.
Even to this day, his words are a major source of encouragement for me to continue painting the Fatemi Jawaame’, and to pursue art as a creative outlet.
But more than that, his words, “Bairao ne bulaje ane elogo sathe waat karje -elogo mari ghani mohabbat kare che!” are etched far deeper in my heart. Even when I am indulging in my artistic pursuits, I never lose sight of my larger purpose, shown to me by Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA. Today it is through the hidaayat of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS, that I am able to paint the colours of both Maula’s love in many a heart. May Allah grant me taufeeq to fulfill my destiny in the khidmat of Maula and Dawat.
I have always been bold about expressing myself
Art to me is such a frightening field to pursue. Although I have only just begun my journey I am crippled with fear and anxiety of failure. There are no rule books, laws whatsoever- just uncertainty. Do you feel it too- if so how do you deal with it, or do you use it as inspiration? How easy/difficult has your journey been?
It is so natural to be afraid especially when you have a world of accomplished artists in front of you and if you made them your role models, their work would make your journey more daunting! Fear sets in because you are measuring yourself with external standards of success, which makes you run away from yourself and from discovering your inner potential. The moment your focus shifts back from ‘proving’ to ‘improving’, you won’t be afraid of exploring your talent.
If you look at the top three lessons I have shared, I have always been bold about expressing myself. If art is treated as a means to express and endorse one’s authentic individual perception, initially you will be afraid or anxious of the unknown but if you don’t give up trying you will eventually come face to face with the inner artist and find your unique identity.
Currently you are trying to bring together artists in our community from around the world. What sparked this desire? Can you tell us more about it?
As mentioned before, inspired by the gentle yet powerful words of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA‑ and the constant hidaayat of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS, I want to better engage with women in our community. The ‘artist initiative’ allows me to get to further know the budding artists of our community and helps in creating a platform where they can discover their route to success! Inshallah!
…that of course is my life’s work. Being and encouraging all others to be the best muminah one can be in any context.
What would the title of your book be?
“Sheep in the wild”- Lessons on acceptance, empathy and perseverance. Eventually the sheep acquires wisdom from its life that it becomes the shepherd, guiding other sheep towards acquiring a good character even in the face of adversity.
And that of course is my life’s work. Being and encouraging all others to be the best muminah one can be in any context. Which is only possible by cultivating your intellect and strengthening your roots through abiding by the teachings of Dai al- Zaman TUS.
What would you say is your most prized possession?
Ilme Aale Mohammed SA and the way it has shaped my intellect and character. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Maula RA ni meethi nazaraat and the invaluable lessons my soul has absorbed in the mohabbat and khidmat of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin Maula TUS
[Art] is a universal language understood by one and all.
Parting thoughts? On creating art, being an artist, or even the role you believe art plays in the world.
I believe art is a form of communication that crosses personal and cultural barriers. Unlike verbal and written forms of communication, it is a universal language understood by one and all. For me, being an artist means to be original in expressing my ideas, spreading joy and fostering good relations, all in the name and mohabbat of my Maula TUS
Maula is my prism, who shows me how the light of knowledge and skills that I have acquired can be used to benefit not only myself, but my family, my friends, my community and humanity at large.
The moment your focus shifts back from ‘proving’ to ‘improving’, you won’t be afraid of exploring your talent.
Khuda TA Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin Maula TUS ni umre sharif ne taroze qiyamat daraz karjo!
You can check out Bensaab’s entire INÃSH collection here
Do follow their Instagram account @ https://www.instagram.com/art_by_the_bay/