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Opening Celebration & Artist Talk 

February 28th, 2024 | 5:00pm – 8:00pm


For the multimedia exhibition Havah… to breathe, air, life, artist Shahzia Sikander has created major new work on the theme of justice. The work in its entirety is composed of four distinct elements, two of which will be on display at the University of Houston Spring 2024. Havah… is a culmination of Sikander’s exploration of female representation in public monuments. Disrupting more classic forms of public sculpture, the artist proclaims, “I have always had an affinity for the anti-monument within my practice.” It is the history of monumental public works, from which women and people of color have largely been absent, that provide a starting point for Sikander to reinsert the female figure into our field of visual culture. The title for the work, Havah, is taken from the word meaning “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew. It is precisely these ephemeral qualities that the artist brings to this work that mark it as distinct from more traditional public monuments we are accustomed to viewing. These temporary artworks are just that—works that are never meant to be fixed and unchanging, but are fluid in their space and their meaning.

The large-scale sculpture Witness (2023) is a grand allegorical female figure that allows for multiple meanings and possibilities. With its unrooted arms and legs, the figure is literally ungrounded, floating, resisting permanence. She is part of a diaspora whose home is where one chooses to put roots. Her skirt is made to mimic the domed and stained glass ceiling of the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, and also operates as the figure’s uplifting protection. It also references longitudinal and latitudinal lines.This skirt is adorned with Arabic writing (“havah”) that is decorated with mosaics composed of many small colorful tiles. The golden figure shines in the sun and glows in the night’s light, with a radiance appropriate for an everyday-goddess. Her head is decorated with golden rams horns—two thick braids—that form a crown of female potency. The corresponding work, Reckoning (2020), is a video projection animation by Sikander. The video begins with a murmuration of what looks like golden seeds, or specs of light, splashing into one another; individual and whole simultaneously. Two entangled warriors appear. Their battle is a graceful dance. Sikander lends us a lesson in how to engage in a better, more respectful, form of dialogue between two oppositions. This airy animation, in pixelated form, is a visual lesson on the timelessness of all matter, reminding us that Mother Nature (another allegorical goddess) is the only essence that prevails. Havah…to breathe, air, life is co-commissioned by Public Art UHS and Madison Square Park Conservancy and it is the first major co-commission for both institutions. The exhibition was first on view in Madison Square Park from January 17 – June 4, 2023, and it will open at the University of Houston February 28 – October 31st, 2024.







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Earlier this week the Houston Chronicle, Axios Houston, The Daily Cougar, and Artmajeur Magazine, reported that Texas Right to Life, a Christian, anti-abortion nonprofit organization, had plans to protest the reception and call for the removal of the artwork. Of the two works included in the temporary public exhibition — Witness, an 18-foot golden sculpture of a female figure, and Reckoning, a video animation of warrior-like figures in a graceful struggle — the complaints have been raised against the large golden statue.

The Public Art UHS webpage about the installation explains that Ms. Sikander’s work speaks to the history of women and people of color being underrepresented in public works. The artist has stated that the floating figure, whose arms and legs resemble twisted roots, “can carry its roots where it goes” as a representation of being a part of a diaspora, a group of people who have had to move from their homeland (a term commonly associated with the history of people with African or Jewish ancestry, but which also relates to any migrant community). Public UHS also notes that the ram horn shape of the figure’s hair is a symbol that has significance across religions and cultures, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and belief systems in Central and South Asia. 

In an online petition launched by Texas Right to Life, the organization states that the work contains “satanic imagery to honor abortion and memorialize the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and that it “honor child sacrifice.” The petition also references Ms. Sikander’s use of the word “Havah” and her statement in The Art Newspaper that “Eve is also the first law-breaker, right?” The petition then states, “Disobedience to God certainly should not be esteemed by society, much less lauded with a statue.” 

The quote from Ms. Sikander was in reference to both Witness and a second piece, which features the same female form emerging from a lotus flower. Though Witness was originally installed in New York’s Madison Square Park, the sister piece was situated on the rooftop of the nearby Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. According to The Art Newspaper, “Its justices approached Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the conservancy’s deputy director and chief curator, with interest in bringing the work of diverse contemporary artists into the mix of the courthouse’s historic murals and justice-themed statuary.”

Along with complaints from Texas Right to Life, some university students and alumni have also voiced concern about the sculpture. The Daily Cougar shared thoughts from students on both sides of the argument. While some, like Aaron Stollings, maintain that the sculpture is satanic, others, like Noah Monreal, note that “those who say the statue is demonic clearly haven’t done their research on the piece and the artist.”



Edited by hindesky
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