INCIDENTS OF chaos, mystery and flux fascinate Houria Niati and many of her images seek to capture the dynamism of such times. In the large pastel drawing Page 152, Chapter III, 1985-86, a title suggesting a narrative sequence, a schematic box-like figure shoots a red gun, the path of the bullet mapped out by red dashes seeking the female figure sprawled below. The action is echoed by insistent force lines in many bright colours, emanating from the protagonists, bouncing to the limits of the paper. In Earthquake, 1988, anonymous bodies are buried and fractured in a devastated land.
Other works describe scenes of confrontation. In the painting Even the Fishes are talking about It, 1984, a pair of bristling, spikey dogs are transfixed in an eyeball to eyeball meeting. Blaring colours emphasise the cacophony. Flat, carnival oranges, violets, acid greens are applied in short rectangular marks which create a frenetic, staccato effect. Faces are scratched into the wet paint making subtle, ghostly, half-seen images contrasting with the starkly painted dogs. A strange long-necked bird looks on, silenced behind black bars. The animals are simplified, codified as Niati consciously seeks a child-like sparseness of visual language.
All the works testify to speed, enjoyment and fluency in their making. People, animals and insects are sucked into the rushing tide of marks which form irresistible rivers of movement. Sunny, joyous colours predominate in the early works, darker and more sensuous blues and purples in the most recent pastels, as if day has turned to night. The rough, crude texture of the early pastels turns into a smooth velvety richness, the colours harmonious and inky. The pastel drawing Vent des Passions, 1984, is filled with a whirlpool-like form in which large-eyed birds rush, sucked headlong round and around. The many eyes at the centre of this storm create a stable focus.
In some of the new pastels Niati’s imagery appears less fresh, less inventive with the appearance of the shorthand, hourglass, faceless female nude that is such a pervasive symbol in our society. Beaute, calme et volupte, 1988, and La nuit des passagers clandestins, 1988, are overflowing with this easy, linear sign. Niati works in a rapid, spontaneous fashion letting images flow unchecked. While I appreciate, as a positive force, the desire to work in an intuitive, uninhibited way during the drawing process, it has, in this instance, resulted in the use of a stereotypically shaped and pictorially unchallenging sign for the female body. Despite this criticism I found these pastels rich and evocative, suggestive of dark, mysterious places, some spacious and watery, others confined and shadowy. L’Attente–peut-etre pour Demain, 1988, is a still, quiet scene showing a pregnant woman, kept company by small birds, seated beside a window through which a crescent moon is visible. The Last Day, 1988, is a menacing scenario of scowling men leering towards a naked woman, her rounded form trapped by angular dogs baring their razor-sharp teeth. Another disquieting scene is Beaute, calme et volupte, 1988, where the privacy of naked women is violated by faces peering in at the window.
Niati says she wants the interpretation of her works to be unfixed, changing according to the viewer. The images do not demand a specific reading but suggest general moods and sensations, the images accumulating in layers, at some points scratched back into, as if memory is being searched and buried images made visible. The fluidity of the meaning of these images invites the viewer to dream their own dreams.