No to Torture, Yes to Life: An
Interview with Houria Niati
Brainscan interviews British-Algerian artist Houria Niati about her vast catalogue of work, her experiences growing up under the French colonial occupation of Algeria, the struggle for independence, and her experiences of migration to the UK.
“Each artist is interlinked with the history of their country,” Houria Niati assured me during our first meeting. A quick look at the works of this British-Algerian artist confirm, exactly, why she feels this way. Born and raised around the time of the Algerian War of Independence—one of the most brutal and complex independence movements in the emerging postcolonial world—the events that formed the backdrop of Niati’s childhood, and her native country’s unfolding history, have been huge themes in her practice.
This was most explicitly explored in her early works, which directly dealt with the brutal torture suffered during the French occupation of Algeria, the Orientalisation of North Africa, and the past and present social structures under which Algerian women live.
In later years her work delved inward, examining the multiple identities she gained from her experiences of living under colonial rule as a child, as well as her later migration to Britain. It reflects a deep, yet conflicted, love towards Algeria, exploring its art, history and culture, as well as her own cherished family histories.
Now at 75-years-old, this fascinating artist has lived many lifetimes. Throughout her four-decade-career, she has skillfully woven her lived experiences into a seriously impressive body of work – much of which has been exhibited globally. Here at Brainscan we have had the privilege to meet with Niati on a number of occasions to discuss her vast catalogue of work and life experiences in the form of interviews and live talks we have put on with the artist.
Born in the town of Khemis Miliana (FKA Affreville) to a Berber mother and an Arab father, Niati’s childhood home was liberal, artistic and a mesh of cultures. Despite the political disarray and conflict in Algeria at the time, her childhood was largely a happy one. Her parents immersed the family in the rich cultural heritage of Islam, sharing with them its architecture, music and poetry, as well as her mothers distinct Berber traditions.
Their home was also greatly influenced by France – in part owing to the culturally assimilative nature of French colonial governance. Niati’s school education, for example, was wholly ‘French’. As she recalls: “I was as a young girl, bouncing between the two cultures.”
Her father, an amateur painter, also shared a deep love of classical European art — especially the works of French artists such as Cèzanne and other European Post-impressionists.
This appreciation was passed down to a young Niati, further strengthening the ‘French’ part of her identity. Houria fondly remembers her father’s still-lives, landscapes, and numerous art books nestled around the house, inspiring her desire to pursue painting from a young age.
Houria in her Studio, 2022
Image by Frankie Fitch Bunce ©
Unfortunately, his untimely death when she was just 16 temporarily put a stop to her painting ambitions. When recalling these painful memories, Houria laughs at the irony of him surviving many a bomb explosion during his time in the navy. Yet, he would later die from a sudden heart attack during a football match he was refereeing.
His passing devastated the family, both emotionally and financially.
“He had promised me that he would send me to art school in Algiers when I turned 18, and now all of my dreams were shattered. It was impossible.
“My mother was not working and had breakdown after breakdown. It was truly a massive loss for us.”
In the aftermath of his death, Houria was forced to become a bread winner to support her mother and six siblings, and began working for the Algerian Cultural Centre. But she wished for a different life.
“Still in my heart I wanted to be an artist…I wanted to continue my father’s work.”
Holding tightly to this aspiration, she finally came to the U.K. at 25-years-old to pursue her passion. Despite significant language barriers and financial pressures, Niati secured a place at the Croydon College of Art; sustaining herself through au pairing and cleaning jobs, and taking English classes when she could. It is here that she would begin No to torture (1982) in her final year of university, the series which launched her career.
“No to Torture was my first big realisation,” she reminisces. “I could see that I was really different from the other students. Whilst they painted still lives and portraits, my subjects were people in jail.”
Another student once questioned why her work was so ‘dark and morbid’, to which she simply responded: “Because I lived it.” She tells me that this series is “directly attributed to women who fought during the war, who were jailed and tortured.”
“We wrote Algerian Algeria, French out! We were so scared when they took us, but I was so proud of what we did.”
The Algerian War of Independence against French colonial occupation raged for eight-years, between 1954-1962. From the young age of six she grew used to the sound of bombs. Her defiance against French rule came to the fore at just 12-years-old, when she was arrested with some school friends for creating anti-colonial graffiti.
“We wrote Algerian Algeria, French out!
“We were so scared when they took us…but I was so proud of what we did.”
Thankfully, following a long detention, and questioning that lasted until the early hours, the young girls were released without facing any physical harm. But the next day they were humiliated in front of the entire school, and later beaten by their headmistress, who despite fervently protesting their physical arrest was appalled that they would betray ‘those who had civilised them’.
Yet this traumatic experience did little to subdue Houria. To this day she remains in awe of those who fought for Algeria's independence — especially the women who took part in the struggle.
“During the colonisation, women really stood up for their rights. They were a big part of the resistance groups.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the film The Battle of Algiers, but as they showed there, Algerian women dressed up as French women and would bring bombs in baskets to the French quarters.
“It was an incredible horror. But they truly believed in what they were doing. They wanted their country back.”
Many of the women Niati speaks of were indiscriminately tortured if caught, as were many civilians accused of aiding the Liberation Front. Houria tells that as a young girl she would often see women from her neighbourhood return from detention with the tell-tale signs of torture covering their faces and bodies. Despite the physical horrors and mental abuse they had, it always struck her that many proudly shared that they had kept their silence.
No to Torture (After Delacroix Women of Algiers 1834)
But the genesis for No to torture came to her much later in life. In the early 1980s she saw an interview with the writer Simone de Beauvoir on an arts programme and was left awestruck.
“I thought she was incredible,” Houria tells me. “She and her husband had stood up and demonstrated against the practice of torture in Algeria before independence, and the French government labelled them traitors.
“Whilst this was discussed in the interview, they showed a Delacroix painting, La Liberté Guidant le Peuple [his iconic depiction of the French Revolution]. They called him the painter of power.
“Suddenly this idea came to my mind. I knew I had to pick up one of his paintings.”
Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Eugene Delacroix, 1834
As Niati explains, Women of Algiers in their Apartment was initially a product of the early days of France's colonisation of North Africa, when a touring Delacroix found his boat to Morocco stranded in the port of Algiers. During his short time there he gained access to observe the inner corners of a harem, where the painting was conceived.
Niati tells this story, always adding that whilst completing these paintings–that both glamorise and sanitise the harem–he used French women as models in Paris, in place of the Algerian women he observed. Although like many artists before her, Houria was (and still is) in awe of this composition, and his skills as a colourist, she saw the darker legacy of colonial subjugation that this interpretation of Algeria masks as a serious talking point.
“It confronted France just as much as Delacroix himself. The women I presented were fighters, and they were repressed. It was bang in their face, they could not turn away.”
So, No to torture began with a direct re-interpretation of this painting, which forms the central panel of series and its titular piece. In contrast to Delacroix’s’ softly-coloured, exoticised and delicate women in his orientalist re-imagining of a seraglio, Niati’s paintings present powerful images of faceless, bonded women in the nude.
Dramatic broad brushstrokes and bright, bold use of colour shape and reflect her pain and mourning for the tortured women of the independence movement — as well as her anger at the legacy of colonial subjugation.
“It confronted France just as much as Delacroix himself. The women I presented were fighters, and they were repressed. It was bang in their face, they could not turn away”.
The paintings also deal with the revolutionary aftermath, as well as the independence struggle. After the war many of the women who fought were still under societal constraints and “sent back to the kitchen” as Houria retorts several times during our meetings.
“That was a big disillusion to me. Although they were fighting, no one really described what their [later] role was going to be.”
“Repression doesn’t just stop, it's an ongoing process.”
A stream of social commentary continues throughout the entirety of Niati’s body of work.
When I asked her about the intentions behind the political expression in her pieces she clarified: “I am not such an activist per say, I don’t go out in the street–although I would love to–but my [style] is to sit at home and paint, and say exactly what I need to say through the visual.”
Houria in front of No to Torture
Image by Frankie Fitch Bunce ©
Nonetheless, her work is laden with a revolutionary spirit. This is largely due to her staunch values which she harnesses throughout her practice:
“I always believed that humankind should respect, love and embrace each other. I believed this the whole time I lived through those terrible times in Algeria. I want to fight for freedom of speech and freedom of consciousness, so that people can believe in anything they want.”
In her later series To Bring Water From The Fountain Has Nothing Romantic About It, Niati continued her feminist flair with a further exploration of her heritage and the role of women in Algeria’s traditions and cultural legacies through a multi-disciplinary exploration of old Algerian folk music.
“In Algeria there are many romantic songs about beautiful women bringing water from the fountain. It idealises things. Yes, it might be a romantic process. But it’s very hard work too.”
Much like her treatment of the romanticised ideals of Algerian women seen in the works of Delacroix, Niati confronted these idealised representations of Algerian women, instead ‘paying tribute’ to the real experiences of these women, expressing that there is so much more to their work and place in society than the beauty conveyed in these folk songs.
The works also serve as an ode to her diverse cultural heritage, and harnessed multiple mediums across a number of exhibitions in both the U.S and the U.K. to explore this, including: painting, drawing, pottery, sand installations, and performance art – including sound installations, Arab-Andalusian singing and poetry in English and French.
Three jars and three paintings on photographic paper from ‘To bring water from the fountain has nothing romantic about it’ Miami, 1998
Houria installing ‘To bring water from the fountain has nothing romantic about it, Miami, 1998
In later years, Houria has explored digital mediums in later works, further continuing with themes from her multifaceted background and lived experiences, including ID – Identite (2003), which served as a very direct exploration of experiences of migration, and Curtain of Words (2006) in which layers of written language (French, Arabic and English) form a visual cloak over sentimental pictures from the artist’s time in Algeria, delving into her many cross-cutting identities and her deep desire to maintain a connection with her native country.
‘Under Scrutiny’ and ‘Alien’ from ID/Entite, 2003
As part of the Venice Biennale in 2015, Niati showcased several collages from her series Haunted, Self portrait with a Difference, which were created from photo portraits of Houria amongst her oil paintings overlapped with black and white images of Algerian women from her family’s archives. Similarly, her 2012 series What If? collaged images of a young French-Algerian academic who had been interviewing Houria for her thesis with these same pictures.
“She had grown up in France and had very little connection [with] Algerian history,” Niati told me. So the artist placed the academic very physically within their shared history.
Niati’s exploration and love for her diverse background also extended into the musical realm. She collaborated with contemporary flamenco artist Miguel Moreno in 2003, producing Habiboun, an album of Arab-Andalusian music.
Mother and I, Curtain of Words, 2006
Arab-Andalusian music has formed a key part of Niati’s heritage and Houria was “trained in this music from a young age”. Many of the songs date back to 9th Century Spain during the Moorish dynasty of Al-Andalus. Following the expulsion of the Moors in the 15th century, the musical tradition made its way back to North Africa, where it has been kept alive through oral histories in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but its formative cultural role in Southern Europe remains long forgotten.
Niati has long been a champion of the Mahgreb’s profound cultural legacy on Europe, stating: “[Arab music] made a huge impact on Mediterranean music. Miguel was shocked when he heard the similarities.”
For Niati, this legacy of cultural fusion and new coupling of sounds this collaboration brought forth was highly inviting, as nearly all of her work has explored dual identities.
“Coming from one totally different culture to another, it’s a big shock isn’t it?”
Today, Niati is still fascinated by questions of identity–particularly in the realm of mixed heritage and stories of migration–and this is directly reflected in her present work.
“The phase I’m in now with my work is looking at mixed identities, resulting from refugees arriving or mixed marriages. I’m very interested in the results of mixed marriages. I’m very interested in people and I want to understand life now through them.
“Also, the experiences of people escaping from war and their journeys, coming from one totally different culture to another. It’s a big shock isn’t it? I feel for them a lot.”
To explore these themes, she’s creating lots of small portraits which–rather than stemming from posing subjects–are produced directly from her memory and interactions with people who have had these experiences. She’s also hoping to integrate ideas from recents trips to Algeria into a series of larger pieces she is making. Utilising photographs she’s taken from her family home and family members as a reference point, she’ll map contemporary Algeria’s unique culture through domestic scenes.
Eventually, she wants to present these works in one big installation, exploring the social meaning of internationalism and changing national cultures through her own diverse life encounters.
Inside Houria Niati’s Studio 2022.
Image by Frankie Fitch Bunce ©
Beyond this, Niati hopes to have the opportunity to finally exhibit her work in Algeria and is perhaps edging closer to this goal, having recently exhibited works at the National Algerian Centre in London. Since independence, Algeria has experienced serious political tumult. The bloody civil war of the 90s led to mass censorship and many artists, creatives and intellectuals were targeted with violence.
Nonetheless, the contemporary Algerian art scene is growing, and Niati is particularly optimistic about the future.
“There's a lot of regeneration of artists coming out of Algeria. This is a big hope. I hope they persevere. I truly believe in this reset. I hope for freedom from repression and that women can have the same rights as men and have more power.”
But Houria’s fight against injustices in the arts is not just confined to her homeland. As she notes, until very recent times there were huge disparities in the U.K. scene in terms of public recognition and levels of success.
“When I first arrived in the U.K., I remember going to a big exhibition at the RCA called ‘The New Spirit of Painting’. Not a single female artist was [being] shown. I looked again and again in the catalogue. But I could only see male artists. I was shocked, I remember thinking: ‘But I’m not in Algeria anymore.’ Then I realised there were big problems here too.”
“There’s a lot of regeneration of artists coming out of Algeria. This is a big hope.”
Despite this, Houria feels privileged to have begun her career and alongside a lot of successful female artists; having exhibited a number of times with Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, for example, or the recently deceased Laila Shawa.
Despite Niati’s extensive body of work–which has included multiple international exhibitions, critical praise and impressive live performances–, she has never experienced the same level of success as her peers, and has often been left struggling financially and emotionally as a result. She feels this is largely due to having no gallery representation. But now, under the wing of the Felix and Spear Gallery, and with an upcoming exhibition at the Tate later this year, Niati’s profound and heart-felt work will be displayed on a canvas wider and more far-reaching than ever before.