• News
  • Jul 10, 2024

Statue Beheaded at University of Houston

Installation view of SHAHZIA SIKANDER’s Witness, 2023, at the Cullen Family Plaza in the University of Houston campus. Courtesy University of Houston.

According to the University of Houston, a public sculpture by Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander entitled Witness (2023) was beheaded in the early hours of July 8 as Hurricane Beryl slammed into the city and caused widespread power outages. Campus police are currently investigating the incident and have obtained footage of the vandalism.

Located on the university’s campus, the 5.5-meter-tall artwork depicts a gold-colored female with braided hair, resembling horns, and limbs shaped like the roots of a tree. The figure is suspended in the air and held up by a hooped skirt adorned with glass tesserae that forms the Arabic word havah (“air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu; “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew). A collar around the figure’s neck is a nod to the late Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The installation is part of a temporary exhibition titled “Havah . . . to breathe, air, life” (2023), co-commissioned by the Public Art University of Houston System and the Madison Square Park Conservancy. “Havah” was made in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 which removed the constitutional right to have an abortion, and Sikander has stated that it conveys the “spirit and grit” of the millions of women fighting to maintain control over their own bodies. 

But since its public unveiling earlier this year, Witness has been criticized by anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, who protested “to keep the Satanic abortion idol out of Texas” and demanded the exhibition’s cancellation. The university subsequently canceled the artist’s talk and the opening ceremony. It has not yet been confirmed whether the vandalism is related to the protests. The university has called in conservators to advise on the necessary repairs, though in a statement to The New York Times Sikander said she did not want it repaired: “I want to ‘expose,’ leave it damaged. Make a new piece, and many more.”

Camilla Alvarez-Chow is an editorial assistant at ArtAsiaPacific.

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