Noor Althehli

An artist born in a New York summer

By Auguste Nomeikaite

Noor Althehli, Class of 2020, graduated with a double major in visual arts and film and new media. She is now living and working as a freelance artist in her home city, Abu Dhabi.

When asked what she does, Althehli answers with a smirk: “I’m an independent artist and an editor.” It’s easy to be deceived by the simplicity of her answer. The single sentence encompasses a sheer number of projects: besides working on a series of artist interviews commissioned by Engage 101, a new UAE-based online art gallery, Noor is also juggling a collaboration with PostScript Magazine on their soon-to-be-launched merchandise collection, several commercial photography commissions, as well as her painting career.

She says the local arts scene has been welcoming. Yet the journey to a place that is “welcoming” came with its own set of hurdles. “If my freshman year self saw me now, she would be very, very, very shocked,” she prefaces before tracing back the whole story.

Everything mostly changed when I went to my first summer abroad in New York. That was the first time I traveled entirely by myself. Just me by myself with no one there. No plans. I didn't even know where I was, what I was doing there for my classes… But I came back a whole new person.

Noor Althehli, Class of 2018

Like many, Noor entered university undecided, spending her first year in classes such as Global Histories and Math 101. “Everything mostly changed when I went to my first summer abroad in New York. That was the first time I traveled entirely by myself. Just me by myself with no one there. No plans. I didn't even know where I was, what I was doing there for my classes… But I came back a whole new person.” In New York, Noor enrolled in a ceramics and photography course. “That was when I thought, ‘Khalas, this is what I want to do, I have to go back to Abu Dhabi and just enroll in more art classes.’”

That is exactly what she did upon her return to NYUAD — diving headfirst into what the arts department offered. Besides rigorous coursework and professors who were both encouraging and harsh, she pinpoints the opening night of her Capstone show as a moment of major personal growth. Mostly, because it forced her to confront a hugely prevalent aspect of her personality until then — her shyness. “It was very overwhelming — me saying that is an understatement. But I told myself it had to happen.” Anyone involved in the art world will know about the intensity and franticness of opening nights. She recalls her encounter with Vice Provost Chuck Grim that night: “He looks at me, and he says ‘Noor, can you tell me a little bit about this?’ I look at him with confusion, because, ‘Oh, he's asking me because this is my work. This is my exhibit. I'm the person who's supposed to answer this question.’ And I was never put in that spotlight before.”

Having faced that anxiety once, she persisted in confronting that side of her again, time and again. Eventually, she found herself speaking in front of dozens as the curator of another student’s Capstone Project, and, a couple of years down the line, as an intern at Beit 15 and a collaborator of Hashel Al Lemki on his show "The Cup and The Saucer," which landed her the opportunity with Engage 101.

At the end of the interview, she took a moment to think of advice she would have found valuable as her freshman self. “Keep doing what you’re doing, because everything will fall into place eventually.”