New YorkMadison Square Park
Shahzia Sikander: Havah…To Breathe, Air, Life
January 17 – June 4, 2023
If you enter Madison Square Park at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street from now until early June, a resplendent, golden female figure confidently holding court from within a fenced lawn will greet you. Witness (2023) by Shahzia Sikander is impossible to miss. At three times the size of the average person, it is one of two sculptures that make up MSP’s timely new installation, Havah...to breathe, air, life, which focuses on justice, and the empowerment of women. An acclaimed Pakistan-born multidisciplinary artist, Sikander trained in the labor-intensive Mughal miniaturist tradition but began to question and audaciously dismantle traditional paternalistic motifs and meanings early on in her career as she formulated her own distinctive feminist-driven iconography. Sikander’s projects have evolved over the years but her exploration of narratives based on female experience has remained constant, underscoring the immense worth of lives that have too often been harsh, sacrificial, and unacknowledged.
This venture marks Sikander’s first outdoor public art project on this scale, at a time when the legacies of many putative (male) heroes are being re-evaluated and their statues removed, some forcibly. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Madison Square Park Conservancy’s Chief Curator and Artistic Director, has called Havah... an “anti-monument,” but it might also be hailed as a new kind of monument: life-embracing, inclusionary, dedicated to more compassionate, humane values.
Sikander’s golden woman, made of painted, high-density foam, is a hybrid, part human and part vegetal, underscoring her generative power and close association with the Earth. Gracefully curved—but durable—branches and roots replace her arms and feet, proving to be tenacious anchors for a body characterized by rounded breasts, tiny waist, and fulsome hips like those of ancient fertility goddesses. Her abundant hair, which is integral to identity across cultures and history, is braided and twisted into coils reminiscent of a ram’s horns, transforming it into another emblem of power. Witness is held aloft by an armature in the shape of a hoop skirt that does not conceal or constrain her body. Instead, its construction suggests a globe that she is an intrinsic part of, as a steward rather than a ruler. Affixed to it in colorful glass mosaic tiles is the word “havah” in calligraphic script, which in Urdu means “air” or “atmosphere” and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew.
A second, nearly identical, golden female figure sans skirt in painted bronze, NOW (2023) (as in the protest slogan “Justice Now”) is pedestaled on a lotus flower and installed atop the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, the landmarked Beaux-Arts building across Madison Avenue on 25th Street, connecting the two sites. Placed at the east end of the building and preceded by a row of male figures (among them Confucius, Solon, Justinian, and Moses), Sikander’s sculpture is the first woman of color displayed in the white marble lineup. Emphatically rejecting the robed, allegorical, female figure of blindfolded Justice to signify judicial impartiality, Sikander has opted for a woman with eyes wide open in her conception. Head held high, proud of her sexuality and her agency, she asserts her right to full equality under the law, de facto as well as de jure.
Although the figure is not a portrait of any specific individual, she serves as a surrogate for many women judges and justices, especially the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the trailblazing advocate for women’s rights and the second woman to sit on the US Supreme Court, to whom Sikander purposefully refers. Both sculptures are decked out in an ornate collar and pleated jabot like those Ginsburg famously wore to feminize (and individualize) the severe, indistinguishable robes of the Supreme Court justices. The reference to the Supreme Court is especially apt at this moment when the recent, retrogressive decisions of its conservative majority have had a devastating impact on women and their rights.
Digital components are also part of experiencing Sikander’s installation. Reckoning (2020), a four-minute animation, can be viewed after dark, from 5–10 p.m. daily. Sikander teamed up with Chinese-American composer Du Yun, who created a haunting soundtrack for this short version of the story of creation, or perhaps more accurately, the constant cycle of creation and re-creation as one order of existence cedes to another. And, the sense of the cosmic is brought near in an AR component called Apparition (2023), accessed through Snapchat on your smartphone. The golden goddess is now much reduced in size, and she floats beguilingly, elusively before you. The air is seemingly showered with iridescent particles or petals that float and fall slowly, as if you’d just stepped into a snow globe, say, or some other wonderland. A magical little guardian angel that hovers over you, she may be the radiant goddess of the future.