Artist in Focus: Zainab S.

November 1, 2016

In conversation with Zainab S.
Photography Fatema A.

Zainab Ben is currently in Jakarta, Indonesia where she resides with her husband and two sons. Her many passions include embroidery, painting knick-knacks, and taking immense pleasure designing her house. Walking in transports you back in time to the homes of Maharajas and Mughals. Every piece is intricate, making evident her eye for details. She hopes to start teaching soon, and is a firm advocate of the power of creating. 


How did your interest come about?

I grew up with my mum- she was a single parent. When I was young, she used to do a lot of crafting activities. She loved painting, stitching and embroidery and a lot of other hands on activities. Even with a pair of chakri, she would say, “I want to make it look beautiful!”

She would take a paint brush and start decorating it.

She was like that.

I always followed what she did. Like if she made a bullion stitch rose. I would just take a needle and start doing it. I still remember, I was younger than my little one, I think I was 10 or so. I looked very intently while she was making it, and followed it properly. It was my first bullion stitch rose and when I showed it to her, she was so happy. Like “Wow!, you made it?” Those words served as an encouraging start for me.

I was in college when she started her own setup. She used to design ridas, nighties, even wedding dresses. After I finished college, I started helping her out. My interests and her interests were alike. Both of us would go out, shop, buy a lot of fabrics, and then design.

I remember having a small, very simple box when I was 8 or 9 years old. She used to have it in her cupboard and after I got married, I visited her once. I saw that she had decorated the dhaaknu (cover) of the box, put a ribbon around it, and hung it on her wall. I told her I want this. It’s hanging in my bedroom right now.


She was just that kind of person. I got it from her. I too, am the kind of person who looks at something and tries to figure out- How can I make this better?

I can’t make portraits, I’m very bad at proportion. But I have a sense of colors and textures.

It really irritates me when I see something out of place. Whether it’s my home or anyone else’s (laughs)– I want to fix it.

I think all my inspiration is from my mother. She’s my mentor.

The kind of stuff she does is amazing.

Pick your favorite three pieces in your house and tell me about them:

The pieces by themselves are ok- sometimes it depends on how hard it was for me to change the upholstery and make it nice.

For example this chair. When I bought it, the fabric on the seat- I did not like it. I brought it home anyway, but I kept thinking, I’m not happy with this, what do I do?

I mean I loved these chairs.

That time, my Ibrahim (her oldest son) was 3 years old. After dropping him to his montessori, I had to wait 2-3 hours for him to end school. By coincidence, his montessori was surrounded by a lot of these sofas and upholstery shops. They used to sell fabrics as well. I used to roam around and eventually I got hold of this material.

I was thrilled. The only thing was that the flowers were reddish. I painted them white. I changed the color and made them yellow, to match the stripes which are on the top.

It gives me the feeling, that- Yes! That’s why this particular piece is very close to my heart. I achieved the right combination. It was so fulfilling for me. 






These matkis are my favorite ones. I bought these from a Sunday market. It’s a flee market in Karachi. There was this old fellow. Salman (her husband) and I were walking past him, and he just stopped us, and said, in Urdu, “Ye bas do cheeze rehgai hai, le lo, me saste me dunga.” I didn’t give much attention to it, and I went straight ahead. And then again when he said the same thing to someone else, I turned, and looked, and I was like hmmm I want it. Salman said why? What do you see in them? And I said I think I can wash it and make it look the way it should and they will definitely look nice. They were a little rusty, not the way they look right now. They had a few patches of black. I painted it with gold and yellow.

I love them because they turned out really nice after washing and painting, even better than what I  had initially thought when I decided to buy them.



The paisley. It broke my heart when it came from Pakistan and it was broken into pieces. I had no hopes that it would be made again. This Indonesian “tukaang” craftsmen, he came and looked at it. He asked me what shape it was because he couldn’t even make that out- it was broken so badly. It was bad. I mean I had- I thought it was gone. The tukaang managed to put it together in the end.




What advice would you give to people looking to furnish a new home?

For me, it’s my instinct that I follow. If I like something, I’ll buy it. I don’t just buy it because someone else has it. For me- I consider myself an artist and my home as my canvas. Adorning my home, is not for anybody else. It is for myself. It pleases me.








Any parting thoughts?

Mmm… Be creative. Think creatively. It’s nice. It’s a good way of unwinding yourself. For me, after a long day’s work, if I get my needle and thread and do some embroidery, it rejuvenates me. You find your hobby, find your passion and something that unwinds you.


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