Artist Hassan Nor draws old world vision of Somalia for new generation

In a high-rise tower located on Portland Avenue lives Hassan Nor, a Somali immigrant. Most of the residents in the building, like Nor, are seniors. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment by himself and the living room is set traditionally with beige- and maroon-colored Arabian sofas that are closer to the ground. This is where he sat when an interesting thought struck him about picking up an old boyhood hobby.

Nor was born in a small Somali town in modern day Kenya near the Somali border. Nor, now 77 years old, came to America in 2002 seeking a more stable life. Nor is fluent in Somali, Swahili, although Arabic and English are difficult for him.

When he first arrived in the United States, he found himself spending most of his days at the mosque – the most familiar site in the bizarre new world he lived in now.

“I finished memorizing the Qur’an here in America because I spent most of my days at the mosque,” Nor said. The Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, contains 6,236 verses and memorizing it is seen as a great achievement. In the Somali culture learning the Qur’an is emphasized more when one is a child as a long held theory that a child’s brain soaks up information better. For Nor, reading the Qur’an reminded him of when he was a young boy who had nothing better to do but learn and play.

Nor developed an interest in drawing when he was just a child. He would often draw into the sandy pavement near his home. This is when he realized he enjoyed using his hands to make things. “I remember I was 9 years old. I used to draw on small pieces of paper back home,” Nor said. As he entered into adulthood, he began etching intricate designs onto wedding hall walls and mosques as well as occasionally being contracted to paint someone’s house. Over time, he learned how to sew and opened shop as a tailor. Once married, Nor went on to work full time, which caused him to put a halt to drawing.

“It wasn’t until I came here [Minneapolis] that I began drawing again,” he said.

Most of Nor’s days are now spent at the store his daughter, Farhiyo Nor, owns near his apartment. When he isn’t there he is in his apartment working on an art project. In the beginning Nor often drew on anything he found around his apartment; on the backs of flyers, pamphlets and on pieces of cardboard he found laying around his daughter’s store. One day Farhiyo brought him the posters that her children used for their school projects.

By any definition, Nor is not a traditional artist. What he might lack in opportunity, information and access is made up for in sincerity and nostalgia in Nor’s artwork. His major art pieces are found on posters of assorted colors – pink, green, yellow, orange and blue.

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Above: Artist Hassan Nor, surrounded by his artwork in his Minneapolis home. Photo by Wing Young Huie..