Disabled painters - meet the talented ‘impatient’ Noora Elkoussy

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Colourful vintage style photo of Noora Elkoussy siting in a field full of yellow flowers.

@Noora Elkoussy

Disabled painters: meet the talented ‘impatient’ Noora Elkoussy

Making it as an abstract artist is notoriously tough, and it isn’t any easier if you’re a disabled painter who is partially sighted.  Brendan McDonald talks to one of California’s most talented contemporary disabled painters Noora Elkoussy about the intersection of art, disability, and growing up as a Muslim woman in the U.S.

Noora is a Californian abstract artist and photographer, who started painting full-time after being treated for a brain tumor in 2013. Formerly a disaster relief professional, she now sells her art Noora Elkoussy Fine Arts and is one of the top designers of the company Vida & Co.

Brendan: Why don’t you tell us a bit about your background before we explore what it means to be a disabled painter?

Noora: I am Noora and I am the artist behind Aquarian Bohemian Art. My family is Egyptian, but I was born and raised in the U.S. I studied diplomacy, international relations, and conflict resolution. Originally, while in college, I wanted to follow a diplomatic path and either join the Foreign Service or the United Nations.

However, at some point, I got the feeling that maybe I wouldn’t be able to align myself with U.S. foreign policy, or perhaps I’d get frustrated by the limitations of the work in the United Nations. I liked what they stood for in theory, but I thought that their hands were tied in too many ways. So, the more I studied conflict resolution, the more convinced I was that NGO and grassroots work might help me be more effective and make a direct change. After that, it was just one non-profit organization after another for me.

Brendan: What did you enjoy the most about the NGO work?

Noora: It’s hands-on. I got to be on the bureaucratic side, working for the headquarters, but I also got to be in the field, solving problems first-hand. Being able to advocate for both the headquarters and the field allowed me to build bridges between the two sides. On top of that, traveling the world and working with the local communities and immediately being a part of the solution were my favorite aspects of the work.

Brendan: I see that you worked a lot both in the US and in the Middle East. Did being a person of Middle Eastern descent who grew up in the US give you an insight into what to expect?

Noora: I think being the kid of immigrants and growing up with friends from all over the world makes you more attuned to what makes people tick, culturally, or religiously. So, my upbringing prepared me for being aware of cultural nuances. For example, I went to Kosovo, which is a Turkey-influenced country, much like Egypt. What I found interesting were the similarities between the foods, customs, or even the music. Moreover, I could see some of the religious influences. Kosovans are Muslim, and while not very religious, some of the Islamic culture comes out especially during Ramadan.

Brendan: Do you come from a strongly religious family?

Noora: Yes and no. But not in a way you hear about, or that you see on the news. I grew up with my mum, and neither of us wear a hijab, nor do we go to the mosque. We practice within our household, in our own ways. I have a more spiritual approach, and instead of praying in a ritualistic sense, I like to talk to God on my own. Religious practice is all a matter of interpretation and context. In my opinion, God is much more merciful and forgiving than many people tend to believe.

Brendan: Growing up in the US post 9/11, did you ever encounter discrimination based on your background?

Noora: Yes, but probably not as much as my mother. My first name is not particularly Muslim sounding, so that, connected with the fact that I wear tank tops and shorts all summer long, I don’t get pinpointed as Muslim right off the bat. So, I rarely encounter discrimination based on my appearance. However, I am political, and I have been known to go to rallies and demonstrations, especially the ones about the US Occupation of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. I am a pacifist, but the LA community knows me as progressive and very vocal. So yes, I have been called things. But I think most people decide early on that I am harmless and leave me be.

“I am not trying to be an inspiration as a disabled painter. I just have a strong will to survive, and art is my way of communicating this to the world.”

Noora Elkoussy

Haemangioma and the aftermath as a disabled painter

Brendan: And then your career and professional development was cut short by a brain tumor.

Noora: Right. So, I have something called a cavernous haemangioma. It is a bundle of blood vessels, that is shaped like a raspberry, with tails on each end. It is located in my right optical nerve, in the center of my brain. The first sign that something was wrong came when I was in Tunisia in 2011, where I experienced some vision problems. Then, fast forward to Lebanon, where I was working with the Syrian refugees, specifically on sexual and gender-based violence.

Then one day, my right eye gets bloodshot and my vision gets blurry again. The doctors kept sending me from one test to another. Once I was sent to an oncologist, I knew something serious was happening. The doctor told me: “You have a cavernous haemangioma, and it needs to come out very soon.” It was difficult because I had just got the job of my dreams, working as a country director. It was the highest-level position I have obtained in my career and Lebanon was my favorite post so far. However, I knew that I wanted to go back home and do this at home with my mom. So, I handed off my position, and came back to the US for my surgery.

Brendan: And how did it go?

Noora: There was a complication during the surgery. The doctors found out that the mass was inside my optical nerve, rather than next to it. That is why they had to leave it in, and the best they could do is to drain it of blood and close me up. It was a big disappointment for all of us. Six months later, it was fully engorged in blood again and the option was on the table: Do we go back in and drain it one more time? I said no, as I was still not fully recovered from my first surgery.

Two years later, I was still experiencing the worst migraines of my life. On top of that, the tumor would bleed frequently into my optical nerve, causing my eyes to go blurry. It would also make my migraines flare up and I would sleep a lot. Over time, I learned to partly control my condition with a combination of specific foods and pain medication, but it took me years to figure out.

Brendan: How did that affect your career?

Noora: It made it very hard to hold onto a job. I tried a couple of part-time jobs, but with my frequent hemorrhaging, daily severe migraines, and excessive sleepiness, I was not a reliable employee. And ironically, I keep getting rejected for disability, as the government refuses to acknowledge migraines as a valid reason, despite them being the result of a brain tumor. That all prevented me from finding a full-time job.

Art therapy as a way out

Brendan: How did you steer into the direction of making art after your surgery?

Noora: I have always been artistic and suddenly I was sitting home, needing something to do. I kept getting frustrated while watching the news, because I could not get out there and do something meaningful. So, I just started painting again. On top of simply being something to do, it was somewhat therapeutic and healing as well. After a while, I amassed my old and new work and decided to post it on Instagram.

Suddenly, a company called Vida & Co found me and said: “We really like your work, and we’d like to put it on our clothes,” I sat on the offer for a few weeks, but decided to give it a try in the end. It was a newly open door into the direction of merchandising, on top of selling my art directly as a disabled painter. It also allows me to be my own boss and set my own work pace. So, it works for me right now.

Brendan: Where do you get inspiration for your art?

Noora: I love color, and sometimes I just look at the colors and see something. Or I see an image in my dream, or while listening to music. It just suddenly hits me, and I immediately feel like I have to paint it. Pain inspires me too. However, it translates to me as an intense will to paint, rather than something dark and gloomy. It’s more like I would be dying for the migraine to go away, so I can finally get up and paint!

Brendan: What medium do you use? 

Noora: For an impatient artist like me, acrylics are wonderful and they are just as colorful and brilliant as oils.  Watercolors are my second choice and with both mediums, I choose abstract as I like the freedom of the unknown, and my hands seem to take charge over my mind in this process. Street and Documentary Photography is also a passion, particularly of children. The innocence in their eyes, the spirit of their souls…I am best when I can capture those elements in my photos.

Brendan: Is there something one should know in order to understand your paintings?

Noora: I just want to paint something colorful and happy, and occasionally to explore a new genre. I am an abstract painter and my work is normally strictly nonrepresentational, and in a way, it just maps the evolution of my stream of consciousness. Nevertheless, sometimes as I am painting, I see a concrete image hiding in the corner of the painting. If I do, I try to define it more. That intention to formulate something specific makes me an abstract expressionist. Now, the interpretation of the paintings, and whether people see in them the same as I do, is purely up to them.

I work in layers, and most of my paintings are made up of around three of them. Usually, I am not happy with the first or the second layer, and therefore I don’t enjoy having someone seeing my work before it’s finished. I keep adding layers until the result satisfies me. Sometimes, I leave a painting be for a couple of months, and then revisit it. I spend a lot of time looking at my work and it takes time to decide whether the next layer is going to be the last one.

Brendan: Have you ever painted the tumor nodule?

Noora: I’ve never painted the tumor. I did, however, think about a series of paintings that demonstrated how my eyes see things, but I haven’t got around to work on it yet. I am effectively seeing the world with one eye and an eighth of the other, and this condition fluctuates all the time. Who knows what the future holds, or how long I will live. I live in the moment and leave the rest to God.

Brendan: Do people ever say that you are an inspiration?

They do, and I get very shy about it. I guess, it is because I was raised to be modest. There are inspirations all around us, way bigger than I am. I am surviving, which is in its nature not all that extraordinary. These are the cards I was dealt, and I have to play them as best as I can. You’ve got to keep living; you’ve got to be able to just accept what you have and move forward.

Giving up and living in the past or the “good ‘ole days is not an option for me. I know people who’ve been dealt a similar hand like me, but instead of living in the moment, they have been overcome with feelings of sadness and a sense of worthlessness.  I don’t know how they are going to survive if they can’t escape their depression.

I am not trying to be an inspiration. I just have a strong will to survive, and art is my way of communicating this to the world. Being a humanitarian is also a big part of who I am and if I can’t do it professionally, I find ways to help people even in the smallest way, I can’t breathe without it.

Here’s a peek at some of Noora’s paintings available for sale at Noora Elkoussy Fine Arts. 

Article by
Anna Šútorová

Anna Šútorová is a curator and cultural manager based in Paris. Besides curating exhibitions and helping companies with strategies and content creation, she is also a Lead Ambassador for HON (Her Online Network) in Paris, striving to create a professional community for women seeking to gather collective power to make a positive change.