Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

‘Women don’t look like that in Algeria’: An interview with Houria Niati

“Yes, I love flowers and I love landscapes, but I am far away from that. When we talk about political art, I didn’t even know I was doing political art until somebody pointed it out to me.”

Houria Niati grew up during the Algerian War of Independence. Amidst this backdrop of violence, which lasted seven years, and claimed the lives of over one million Algerians, one thing remained certain: she was an artist. She is most renowned for her 1983 piece No to Torture, which questions the French artist Eugene Delacroix’s Women of Algiers (1834). Inextricably tied to both Algeria’s history and her own multicultural identity, Niati’s work was recently featured in the Tate’s 2023-4 ‘Women in Revolt!’ exhibition.

Niati’s love for Algeria radiates from the warm description of it she gives me. “[When I think of Algeria] I think of my family. I’ve got six sisters, and one brother. We have a very big bond. In Algeria, we have the landscapes, the sea, the Sahara is amazing. We have different types of cities – we had so many invasions in the past, so each city has a different stamp, different colours. It’s really amazing that we have different places in Algeria that express the past, basically, the history.”

“We have [had] so many problems in the past, the history, the wars. But we have an amazing sense of humour. Despite all odds, that’s who we are. We love art, too, and music.”

Under French rule since 1830, Algeria became a part of France, yet was simultaneously viewed as a racial and cultural ‘other’. The prevalence of European influences in the period can be seen in Niati’s own childhood: her father was a landscape painter influenced by Paul Cézanne, and she was educated in a French school amongst French classmates. 

“When the war started, I was six years old […] We all had French friends, you know, we were kids. We didn’t know exactly what the war was about, it didn’t concern us in the beginning. But gradually, when you grow up, and you see people are killed […] it was really, really shocking. You’re in the street and suddenly people [tell you] to hide, to go home, because there are bombs in the cafe next door.”

Niati tells me about her experience protesting the French colonial authorities, which happened when she was only 10 years old, in the late 1950s. Though it’s been over 60 years, she still remembers it vividly. “One day, there was a demonstration in France, people [shouting] ‘stop the torture!’ – it was everywhere. My father used to read the newspaper – whatever he used to read I used to read.”

“Automatically, I stood with the Algerian people. I stood up and I wanted to fight, believe me.”

Outside her French school, Houria and 3 friends staged a protest. “We were saying, ‘French out, stop the massacre, stop killing!’. Everything was spontaneous, we did not plan it… [Afterwards] we calmed down a bit and returned to our other school for Arab class. The moment we were entering, a car stopped. It wasn’t a police car, it was a normal car. And there were three policemen in it.” 

“They started interrogating us. They invited our parents to come and meet us – they thought: ‘They’re children, it must be coming from the parents.’ But it wasn’t coming from the parents, they never asked us to do anything.”

“They put us in jail. I [found] myself in a cell. I was very, very scared. One by one, they were taken [to be] interrogated with their parents. I was the last one. So I was the longest in the dark […] And believe me, that stuck in my mind. I was a child. You know, for many, many years, I couldn’t stay in the dark on my own.”

Niati was interrogated by the French authorities who demanded she supply them with the names of who had instructed them to protest. “They interrogated me in French, but I didn’t want to speak in it. I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to speak French! I was speaking in Arabic.”

“I was really proud of what we’d done,” she says to me. “It was for our country, for independence, you see? From that day on, [the school] treated us like delinquents. It wasn’t considered an act of politics, because – [they thought] that was impossible! They didn’t think kids could do that.”

By her 20s, Niati knew she wanted to study abroad and pursue her dreams. “I was counting the days until I could go somewhere to do art.” That place ended up being England, where Niati balanced English classes, working, and an art foundation course, before enrolling in Croydon College of Art.

“[The interviewer] said to me: ‘Look, it seems you don’t have money. You don’t speak English very well. How are you going to do it?’ I told them I had time [within the 3 year degree] to learn the language –  I had already started. When I think about it, I was really very, very incredible. I cannot believe where I got the strength, you know. And they were very compassionate.”

It was there that Niati produced her work, ‘No to Torture’. “The idea started growing in me in art school, in the 3rd year.  We had a lecture about Delacroix. He did sketches in Algeria, taking artefacts with him [to France], installing them in his workshop and hiring women as his models.” 

“I started getting really nervous. I said: ‘Women don’t look like that in Algeria. They’re hard. They fought during the war. Why are you saying that they are idle, they do nothing?’” Playing into the Orientalist representations Said described in 1978, Delacroix’s work showed women as passive, romantic and sensual. Yet, as Niati had experienced, women had played a significant role in the struggle for Algerian independence, both violently, and non-violently. Niati’s work was born of this disconnect, subverting Delacroix’s depiction with fierce colours, and erasing the identities of each figure to highlight their dehumanisation. 

Niati’s spirit of resistance, born out of conflict – both in terms of colonial violence in Algerian history, and the clashing gendered artistic representations of women – have guided her work ever since. “I wanted my art to confront, and bring solutions to things. Yes, I love flowers and I love landscapes, but I am far away from that. When we talk about political art, I didn’t even know I was doing political art until somebody pointed it out to me. I was doing without actually knowing it.”

“What I had in my heart was to do art, to actually support my country in some way. Algerian women, after the war, [were sent] back to the kitchen. They didn’t have any role in the government. But why? We’d been fighting for seven years, and a lot of them died.” 

“I submitted the work. Lubaina Himid came to see it. I was hiding it, rolled up under my bed, because I thought nobody would be interested in it.” The work has not been hidden since, having been exhibited internationally since 1983.

The atmosphere of the 1970s and 80s was one of transformation: “in the family, work, the politics. Thatcher came along and the [funding for] art schools started to be cut. Croydon College of Art started to close down. There were so many things going on.”

One of these things was the emergence of second-wave feminism, with women artists creating art to make political commentary on reproductive rights, equal pay and race equality. “Women, we started really fighting for our identity as artists. [At the time] no woman was exhibiting in the museums.”

It was an exciting time to be a young artist in London. For Niati, London was a “melting pot, of all kinds of things, people. I was nurtured there.  […] The music was amazing. I was going to shows, to see rock music. The Rolling Stones, that was my thing. There were a lot of women too, playing rock and roll too. We used to go out, going to raves. I loved it so much.”

Combining the two art forms of music and art, Niati experimented with performance art by using her haunting, melodic singing in the 9th-century ‘Arab-Andalusian’ style, to accompany her art. “The music I sing came from the Arabs who lived in Spain. After the Inquisition, they came to North Africa with this music. [I thought], ‘What am I going to do with this music?’. Then I realised I would perform it in the galleries and museums.”

“The gallery was a stage, which was amazing. Performance singing started in the 1980s. People would ask: ‘What’s she doing, singing in Arabic in a museum?’ I wanted to make a point, about the culture, about my cultural background.”

“There were problems, but the 1970s and 1980s [were] the starting point of so many things. I’m so glad I came.”

Though Niati’s work is exhibited internationally, and she is now represented by the gallery Felix & Spear, the journey wasn’t easy. “I was really lucky to be invited to many exhibitions. Groundbreaking exhibitions.” She points to the exhibition of 1993, titled ‘Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World’, which displayed 160 works from 70 artists. 

“But I have not been represented. We had other issues in Algeria – the war just finished, we didn’t have those institutions in place yet. I had to do it by myself […] I’m not complaining because it can be such a good thing to struggle in some ways. It challenges you even more, you know?” Even now, she remarks there are financial difficulties: “it is the trouble of any artist, I suppose”.

Turning to more recent years, Niati expresses excitement at the revived interest in feminist art, and her work. In a full-circle moment, the Tate curators discovered her from her very first exhibition, ‘Five Black Women’ (1983). “They said, ‘who is Houria Niati? Where is she? We want to know her!’”

Installation view, Houria Niati ‘No to Torture’ exhibition. Image credit: Houria Niati and Felix & Spear Gallery.

“It’s very exciting. In French, we call it ‘le second souffle’ (a second wind): a second time of my life.  I’ve been so, so grateful to be a part of these groups [such as the ‘Five Black Women’ group exhibit] because now they are reappearing. I met many, many artists through the Tate’s ‘Women in Revolt’. It’s amazing. Because now it gives me this conviction and confidence to carry on.”

Niati also notes the power of art to unite communities, which she wishes to continue through working with charities who support victims of domestic violence. “You know, you can say ‘I work alone’, fine. But believe me, it makes a big difference to make people happy. A lot of those women have never painted, had never drawn. They produced amazing pictures. They couldn’t believe that they could see their work framed and [exhibited]!”

After a career of over 40 years, Niati expresses the same perseverance and optimism, revolutionary spirit and creativity from her earliest moments in politics and in art. “The future is art, art, art. I would love to promote the music I’ve done. And I’ve started a series of paintings, but I won’t tell you the subject. I want to keep it a secret!”

To end the interview, I asked Niati for some words of advice for young people, and young artists in particular. “Never, never give up,” she says. “Never! There is hope that you can carry on no matter what. For me, I was myself. I [knew] what I wanted to do, and nobody blocked me. I just did it […] Have courage, really persevere. If you are an artist at heart, you can actually do it. That was always my motto, you know. Never give up.”

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles