Public Art UHS Completes Installation of Shahzia Sikander’s Video Work; Protests Continue

by Jessica Fuentes March 27, 2024

Following delays, Shahzia Sikander’s temporary art installation at the University of Houston’s Cullen Family Plaza has now been completely installed. Initially Ms. Sikander’s Havah… to breathe, air, life, which includes two works — Witness, an 18-foot golden sculpture of a female figure, and Reckoning, a video animation of warrior-like figures in a graceful struggle — was to open on February 28, with a public reception and artist talk held on the same day. However, just days before the event, following protests of the work by Texas anti-abortion groups, the university sent an email stating that the reception had been canceled. Also, a representative for the university explained to Glasstire that for “no specific reason,” the installation of the video piece was delayed. 

An evening photograph showing an outdoor installation of a large golden sculpture and a small screen in the background for a video work.

Shahzia Sikander, “Havah… to breathe, air, life”

Earlier this month students and faculty at the University of Houston organized talks addressing the protests around Ms. Sikander’s installation and the postponement of the opening events. On March 18,  the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) penned a letter to Rachel Mohl, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Public Art University of Houston System (Public Art UHS). In the letter, which was published as part of a press release in support of the installation, NCAC offered its resources to the university. Additionally, it suggested Public Art UHS update its FAQ document to prioritize the artist’s intentions rather than the perspective of opponents to the piece, publicly commit to a date for the postponed events, and hold an on-campus conversation about public art and freedom of expression. 

A photograph showing the projector and white screen used for Shahzia Sikander's "Reckoning" video installation.

Shahzia Sikander, “Reckoning” installation at the University of Houston’s Cullen Family Plaza. Left: Projector with speaker; Right: white-painted wooden structure with projection

Ultimately, on Tuesday, March 19, Reckoning was installed. The video is projected onto a white-painted wooden structure adjacent to the sculpture. When Glasstire visited the video work, on a sunny afternoon, the projection was severely washed out by the daylight and was barely visible. Additionally, the video’s audio component, which is supplied via a speaker near the projector, was not audible over the sound of the nearby fountain. 

On March 20, 2024, Public UHS updated their FAQ document about the installation to include context directly from Ms. Sikander about the sculpture, Witness, which has been the component of the installation that has stirred protests. The context details the significance of various pieces of the sculpture, including the ram-like braids, the steel skirt, the mosaic, the limbs that resemble roots, and the decorative collar. Additionally, the updated text includes information about the timeline for the installation, stating that both components have been installed and are on view. It details that Witness will require minor conservation work, which will be completed onsite.

The protests around the piece, which were sparked by Texas Right to Life, a Christian, anti-abortion nonprofit organization, contend that the artwork contains “satanic imagery to honor abortion and memorialize the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and that it “honor[s] child sacrifice.” Despite the university’s efforts to provide more detailed information about the artist’s motivations for creating the piece, protests continue. A rally will be held on Wednesday, March 27, which will be sponsored by Coogs for Life, a pro-life organization at UH, and The Knights of Columbus. 

In response to the protests, the delays surrounding the installation, and the postponement of the related events, professors Anna Mayer and Natilee Harren, along with Reynier Leyva Novo, an exhibiting artist at UH’s Blaffer Art Museum, launched a petition calling for Public Art UHS to “meet its basic curatorial responsibilities by completing the installation of the work that it co-commissioned, work with the artist to reschedule her talk, and fulfill its mission of engaging communities in ‘an open forum to promote dialogue about visual arts and its relevance to contemporary life’ by organizing public programming around this complex work of art.” 

Additionally, the petition calls on UH leadership to “clearly and forcefully articulate the university’s commitment to the arts and to free expression on our campus, which are the fundamental conditions required for faculty and students alike to conduct our work and for the university to live up to its ideals of educational excellence.” As of this article, the petition has approximately 180 signatures, including 20 School of Art faculty members, three current Public Art UHS staff members, both the Director and Assistant Director of the UH Arts Leadership Program, multiple adjunct faculty members, current students, alumni, and concerned community members. 

Ms. Mayer told Glasstire that despite the petition’s support from faculty, staff, students, and the community, neither UH President Renu Khator nor Ms. Mohl have responded. While the university has met the first demand of the petition, the completed installation of Sikander’s temporary public art piece, the additional requests of rescheduling the artist talk, hosting a dialogue about visual art and contemporary life, and addressing its commitment to art and freedom of expression, have not been met. Ms. Mayer did note that Andrew Davis, Dean of the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, sent an update to the College of the Arts regarding the progress of the installation of Sikander’s works. 

In a statement to Glasstire, Ms. Mayer remarked, “We continue to wonder what is inhibiting Public Art UHS from fulfilling its curatorial responsibilities around the Sikander works. We look forward to an explanation being shared with our community, including many of our School of Art students, who are demoralized by the lack of support for Sikander, who was invited to campus, and for her work, which was co-commissioned by Public Art UHS.”

She continued, “I personally have heard students, UH colleagues, and Houston art world professionals express profound disappointment with the disregard for civil, public dialogue around Sikander’s public art on campus. We are waiting for a response to our petition, which outlines several clear, reasonable requests for the handling of the accompanying public programming.”

In light of the delay and protests, Glasstire reached out to Maria Cristina Gaztambide, former Executive Director and Chief Curator of Public Art UHS, who originally commissioned the work in collaboration with New York City’s Madison Square Park Conservancy. 

Regarding the work, Ms. Gaztambide remarked, “Witness focuses our attention on the zones between personal and collective concerns. Its steel hoop skirt, adorned with mosaic detail, is inspired by the stained-glass dome of the Appellate Division Courthouse of New York State, First Department, adjacent to Madison Square Park, where the statue was first on view. Sikander’s nod to the historic courthouse serves both as a proclamation of the figure’s authority and as a reminder of the values that America affords to all of its citizens through its legal system. Among them honesty, integrity, equal justice under law, and — poignantly — respect for diversity.”


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Natilee Harren March 27, 2024 - 15:43 Reply
Annette Khan March 28, 2024 - 15:23

Sikander does not represent Muslims. Her artwork is atypical of Muslim art and when an artist uses religious undertones to propogate her deviant works it is highly offensive to those who practice the faith. Abortion is murder period at any stage! Islam promotes the preservation of life and there are various verses attesting to this fact.


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