UH Students & Faculty Hold Conversations about Shahzia Sikander Sculpture Controversy; Video Work will Reportedly be Installed

by Jessica Fuentes March 10, 2024

On Tuesday, March 5 and Thursday, March 7, students and faculty at the University of Houston (UH) organized talks addressing the protests around Witness, a temporary public art piece by Shahzia Sikander and the subsequent postponement of opening events related to the work. 

In January, Public Art UHS announced that Havah… to breathe, air, life, an installation featuring a sculpture and video work 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. On February 7, Texas Right to Life, a Christian, anti-abortion nonprofit organization, launched an online petition to keep the sculpture out of Texas and called for protests at the opening event scheduled for February 28. One portion of the installation, Witness, was installed, which individuals protested the day of its opening. 

A crowd of protestors stand with signs at the University of Houston.

A crowd of protestors at Shaziah Sikander’s “Witness” sculpture on February 28, 2024.

In the recent March conversations held at UH, students raised concerns that the university’s handling of the protests could possibly indicate that they would not receive support from UH if their work were deemed offensive. Faculty and staff were equally concerned that it may be harder to recruit future students, and that faculty might not be protected if students or community members were to call into question their curriculum.

Faculty member and Project Row Houses co-founder Rick Lowe, who was not able to be present at the meeting, prepared a statement that was shared during the conversation. In part, it said, “When there were threats of protest of Shahzia’s work, it became a gift to our community, which we declined by canceling programming that would allow the powerful voice of her work to inspire diverse voices of our community to be heard whether in protest or civil dialogue.”

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,” installed in Madison Square Park in New York City. Image courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Following the town hall meeting, professors Anna Mayer and Natilee Harren, along with Reynier Leyva Novo, an exhibiting artist at UH’s Blaffer Art Museum, penned an email and launched a petition in support of Ms. Sikander’s work. The email noted, “Based on the powerful thoughts shared at the town hall, some SoA [School of Art] faculty members and Novo drafted a petition that calls on UH Public Art and the university as a whole to support Sikander and arts & artists on campus.”

Another point of contention around Ms. Sikander’s project brought up at the meetings was that Public Art University of Houston System (Public Art UHS), which commissions works and manages the university’s public art collection, has not yet installed a video work, entitled Reckoning, which was originally going to be part of the university’s presentation. This has led some to believe that the artwork will not go on view. The Art Newspaper reported that though this piece was intended to be displayed at the same time as Witness, “Sikander says that, in the end, UH did not bring Reckoning on campus for display.”

When Glasstire reached out to Public Art UHS to ask about the delayed installation of Reckoning, a university spokesperson responded, “There is no specific reason for the delay,” and did not give a timeline for or confirmation of the work going on view. A spokesperson for Sean Kelly Gallery, which represents Ms. Sikander, recently confirmed that Public Art UHS has been in touch with Madison Square Park Conservancy, and said that the installation of the video work is moving forward at UH, though they did not specify the date it will be up.

Andrew Davis, who serves as Dean of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, seemed to distance the college from decisions around Ms. Sikander’s piece and also express support for the work in an email to faculty and staff, which read in part, “The McGovern College and the University of Houston are committed to free expression and to support for artists…. Public Art UHS is an organization that manages a public art collection on behalf of the entire UH system. It is separate from the academic unit that is the McGovern College of the Arts.” Mr. Davis’s email also confirmed that Reckoning, the video work, will eventually be installed. 

A swirling mass of lights are set against a black background.

A still from Shahzia Sikander’s video piece, “Reckoning”

Though it appears the installation of Ms. Sikander’s video is moving forward, a rescheduled date for her artist talk has not yet been announced, and it is unclear if it will still take place. When the university first announced the temporary installation, it noted that there would be an opening reception and artist talk on Wednesday, February 28. However, just days before the scheduled event, an email was sent to newsletter subscribers with the subject line “Cancelled – Shahzia Sikander Opening Reception and Artist Talk.” In the email, Public Art UHS noted, “We are reaching out to update you that there are no planned opening activities scheduled for Wednesday, February 28th.” 

On February 26, following the cancelation, Ms. Sikander shared an exclusive statement with The Art Newspaper. She remarked, “Art should be about discourse and not censorship. Shame on those that silence artists.”

On March 6, a representative from Sean Kelly shared Ms. Sikander’s longer statement, which reads: 

“Art should be about discourse and not censorship. The artwork is an allegory of women and justice and tensions between women and power. As a Witness, the sculpture seems to be exemplifying these very fissures in the country. I find it ironic since the sculpture Witness is about ‘life’ itself. Havah is an Urdu word that literally means ‘breath’ or ‘air’ and is mapped in glass tesserae in a loose calligraphic form around the metal skirt of Witness.

In Witness, the female figure wears her hair in braids that resemble two ram’s horns, universal symbols of strength and wisdom. While conceiving the sculpture, I was studying various recurring motifs in the New York Appellate Courthouse, including those found in its decorative program. The ram and its horns adorn the arms of the iconic judge’s bench chairs in the courtroom. The rams also appear on the frieze of the façade of the courthouse. The braided hair draws on the syncretic, visual histories of Africa and Asia, citing early 20th century Nigerian crest mask, and the spiraling snail-shell hair curls that often adorn the Buddha’s head.

The lace jabot on the sculpture is a nod to the feminization of the black judicial robe popularized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and first introduced by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.”

On February 29, following the publication of multiple articles from a variety of news sources on the protests and postponement of the artist talk, Ms. Sikander stated via social media, “I did not ask for the opening event and artist talk at the University of Houston to be cancelled or postponed.” 

A spokesperson for UH countered Ms. Sikander’s claims, telling Glasstire that “On February 20, the artist told a University official that she did not want to come to Houston and the event was subsequently cancelled.” However, Sean Kelly Gallery contends that “Shahzia never told the University she did not want to come to Houston.”

Witness will remain on view through October in the university’s Cullen Family Plaza.

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