Protestors Oppose Installation of Shahzia Sikander “Satanic” Sculpture; University of Houston Postpones Opening Events

by Jessica Fuentes February 24, 2024

Public Art University of Houston System (Public Art UHS) has postponed a reception and artist talk marking the opening of a multimedia public installation by artist Shahzia Sikander’s, which was set to take place on February 28, 2024.

Last month, Public Art UHS announced that Havah… to breathe, air, life, which was commissioned in partnership with New York City’s Madison Square Park Conservancy, would be on view from February 28 through October 31 at the university. The announcement also indicated that a public reception and artist talk would take place the evening of the opening. However, in an email with the subject line “Cancelled [sic]– Shahzia Sikander Opening Reception and Artist Talk” that was sent to newsletter subscribers, Public Art UHS noted, “We are reaching out to update you that there are no planned opening activities scheduled for Wednesday, February 28th.” More recently, a spokesperson for Public Art UHS told Glasstire that the organization is currently in talks with Ms. Sikander about an alternative date for the event, and that the reason for the postponement is related to “unavailability of all parties” rather than the protests that have surrounded the installation of the work.

A photograph of a large gold statue of a female figure surrounded by an object that resembles a hoop skirt.

Shahzia Sikander, “Havah…to breathe, air, life.” Image courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

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[s] 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.”

In a frequently asked questions (FAQs) document linked on the Public UHS website, the university explains that the artwork is “offensive to some people,” though it does not specify whom. It also notes that the exhibition will be on view as scheduled, from February through October. Regarding the funding of the project, Public UHS says that temporary art exhibitions like this one are privately funded — the money is given for the purpose of public art.

Public UHS goes on to discuss how Ms. Sikander’s work was selected for temporary exhibition. It notes that the University of Houston System Public Art Committee, which is composed of experts from within and outside of the school, received a total of seven proposals, which it began reviewing in 2018. Some key reasons why the committee found Ms. Sikander’s work relevant are that it “gives representation to diversity of the University and the city… [the artist] has strong ties with Houston… [she] was deeply involved with Project Row Houses in Third Ward during her time in Houston… [she] is a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and received the United States Medal of Arts in 2012…”

When asked what the university’s plan is if people do come to protest the artwork or future events, Public UHS explained, “As a public institution, the University of Houston is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged. The University expects that persons engaging in expressive activities will demonstrate civility, concern for the safety of persons and property, respect for University activities, respect for those who may disagree with their message, and compliance with University policies and applicable local, state, and federal laws. We have a freedom of expression policy and more details can be found here.”

Learn more about the artwork and watch a video of the artist speaking about her work via the Public Art UHS website.


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Tami Kegley February 25, 2024 - 12:03

As an alumn of the University of Houston and a recipient of a BFA from this institution, I must register my disappointment. Disappointed that Uof H is bending to undue pressure from these Flat Earthers and other Deplorables. Grow a set. This is embarrassing.

Jcriscoe March 1, 2024 - 10:01

So will they be protesting Torch’s Tacos next?(the queso made me do it!) What about devils food cake, deviled eggs and how will we clean up all the crumbs without a dirt devil? Such a slippery slope!!!!
This is extremely embarrassing for the city of Houston and just plain silly stupid.


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