Naina Hussain’s artwork paying tribute to front-line workers was recently published as the cover of Cosmopolitan India. A freelance illustrator and co-founder of Turn Up PR, Naina loves to work in branding and to strategise. In a candid conversation with ICE Today she shares the details of her journey thus far and the various aspects of her work


Naina Hussain Freelance Illustrator & Co-Founder of Turn Up PR
How did you end up as a freelance illustrator – did you educate yourself in that field?

Actually, I studied Economics in college. Growing up, my sister was the really good artist! My interest towards art only really flourished when I took IB Visual Arts. We had an amazing art teacher who helped me discover the love I had towards visual arts and it really bloomed from there onwards. Soon I was painting all the time at home, and seeing that, my siblings bought me a tablet as a birthday gift during my sophomore year!

In the fall of 2014, when Lakme Fashion Week was in the works, I decided to work on some fashion illustrations and put it up on my Instagram just for fun. It was also strategic in a way – I recreated some looks from Fashion Week and covered upto three looks per day for five days. I wanted people to know what I was doing, although I was aware of how infrequently people used Instagram at the time. Soon, I started getting inquiries regarding my work, and scored two gigs! Also, both my interest in fashion illustration, and my relationship with the Indian fashion industry commenced around that time.

In 2015, my work was published for the first time in print by L’Officiel magazine. When I look back at that work now though, it makes me cringe! But it’s also a good thing, I guess, because I can see how much my work has evolved since then. I also worked with some fashion designers from India around that time and slowly started gaining recognition there, as people were beginning to follow my work.


This also led me to open an official page, bynaina. Then, in 2016 during India Couture Week, a friend and client reached out to me asking whether I would be interested in doing some couture illustrations for Harper BAZAAR’s digital feed. I did a couple of looks for some designers and created some illustrations of Manish Malhotra, Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Varun Bahl, Tarun Tahiliani and Anita Dongre’s collections. Even though I do less of that work now and mostly focus on portraiture, I quite enjoy working on fashion illustrations since I feel as if that’s the closest I can get to being a fashion designer! The fact that it takes me 12 hours just to make a fashion illustration really makes me admire the ones who actually have to make the real thing!

My collaboration with Harper’s BAZAAR played a huge role in getting my page bynaina. out there – it helped me get my break. Even Nandini Bhalla, the Editor of Cosmo India, started following my page around then.

Well, one thing sure led to the other because recently, you made it to the cover of Cosmopolitan India. Could you tell us a bit about the experience?

In the beginning of April this year, Nandini Bhalla reached out to me on instagram, asking me if I could work on the cover for their upcoming issue. The thing that attracted me to the project the most was the message they wanted to send out with it. When we got on a call, Nandini and I spoke about how much India was going through as a whole since February, and there was so much that the outside world was unaware of – how different parts of the community joined forces to help each other out. I personally didn’t know that there were people in India who were risking their own lives to feed stray animals during this crisis!

I did the illustration for the cover of Cosmo India’s April-May issue which featured nurses. Apart from that, I also did illustrations for seven of their stories, some of which still haven’t been released. The rest featured the ASHA workers, Harteerath Singh, Sonu Sood, the ‘animal crusaders’ and other communities who pooled in their efforts and tried to help out as the deadly wave of COVID-19 swept through their country.

Your post celebrating fifty years of our independence had very strong femenist connotations – would you say your artwork is a good reflection of your philosophies and personality?

I created these illustrations without a feminist agenda in mind! I guess my brain automatically links Bangladesh’s history with some distinct images of those times. When I think of the war in 1971, I immediately think of that photo of the female freedom fighters in a Jeep, so I suppose that’s why I ended up creating those illustrations in honour of our 50th Independence Day. Another photo that is deeply embedded in my mind is the photo of the three women in Dhaka University’s library. But yes, now that you mention it, I think that the fact that I feel there’s so much that the women of our country have done in history that we don’t speak about, does come out in my artwork. Our culture tends to focus more on what men do, but instead I would like to gain more knowledge about what women do and achieve as well. I guess that’s why you mostly see women in my work – because no one really speaks about women!

Another interest of mine that is probably reflected in my artwork is my fascination with the Mughal era. Even when I chose my courses back in college, I preferred the ones that included Mughal artwork. I did a course under a professor who was one of the very few South Asian women writers who had written about Mughal history. When attending her classes, I came to know that there’s only one official portrait of a Mughal woman, which is of the Mughal empress, Nur Jahan. And even in that painting, she’s holding a photo of her husband, and she didn’t really have the classic halo behind her that all the portraits of the Mugal kings did. It dawned upon me then, how much of the Mughal history was written by men based on the assumptions they made about what the women then might have done. Women did so much more. When men left the city for war, it was the women who had to look after the cities. So, even though I don’t create renditions of Mughal art, I do take a lot of inspiration from it. The halos that I put in my work, are eerily similar to the ones that were used in the portraits of the Mughal kings. I like to include the halos in my artwork because I believe that you are the centre of attention in your life, and that everyone deserves to be in the spotlight.


Also, when it comes to colour, I think I choose pastel shades because I resonate with them the most. I like to think that life is bright, even though sometimes the world around us might not always seem so.

Besides being a artist, you are also the co-founder of Turn Up PR. Tell us a bit about your journey with it.

It’s funny because you see, it’s actually the other way around! I always wanted to get into advertising after college. The reason I picked Economics as my major is because of the love I have for data and data analysis. Numbers really excite me – you’ll find me working on Google Sheets all the time! After graduation, in America I worked for Home Depot with Data Science, Media Planning, and Influencer Marketing – I didn’t work on the creative side at all! Strategic Planning is the common denominator amongst these three areas, but I think I enjoyed Influencer Marketing the most. As I was working for a big brand like Home Depot, I got to work with people with a huge following on social media. Some of them had a few thousand followers, and the others had over five hundred thousand. I witnessed the results they were bringing in for Home Depot – it was so organic.

I wanted to see something similar in Bangladesh, and as my plan was always to come back once I’d gained some work experience abroad, when upon my return Umaila (the other co-founder) proposed that we launch Turn Up PR, I was on board in a heartbeat! I’d really like to see Influencer Marketing being implemented in an effective manner in Bangladesh. I believe it’s very important to the right kind of influencers, choose the right messaging, and I wanted to work with the whole process from scratch. Even though the market here is different compared to the one I worked with, I’d really like to incorporate the methods I learned and be a part of that change.

How do you walk the line between being unique and fulfilling commercial obligations?

It’s tricky, but that’s a good thing – it keeps me on my toes! bynaina. is a one person entity really. It’s just me and the client that I’m working with. I think I’m immensely fortunate because mostly my clients give me complete creative freedom in my work. When it comes to Turn Up PR, it’s a little different. Since there is a lot of advertising involved in the work, the designs are a bit more generic and need to be appealing to a wider range of audience. Still, I do try to exercise my creativity and come up with something original, especially when working on a company’s branding. I ask my clients a lot of questions and try to figure out exactly what they want and then curate something original accordingly. Regardless, at the end of the day, the client is key and meeting their requirements is the priority. As a result, having bynaina. on the side helps cater to my artistic expression, as that way when I have to work on something very commercial, I still have an outlet for creativity in my work. A lot of people don’t know this, but I also help manage our family business! It’s a printing and packing company which is very stable, unlike a start-up like Turn Up or being a freelance illustrator. So, I think that all in all, the different aspects of the work I’m engaged with, all fulfill me in different ways. I genuinely enjoy doing it all and really appreciate all that I’m learning along the way.


Photograph: Rony Rezaul
Illustrations: Naina Hussain