Last week, the Madison Square Park Conservancy unveiled its latest commission, Shahzia Sikander’s three-part installation Havah… to breathe, air, life. The Pakistani-American artist, best known for her painting practice that encapsulates the essence of Indo-Persian miniature works through a feminist lens, translated her specific skillsets across material and scale to also introduce the first female subject upon the ten plinths of the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse’s rooftop (there are other female figures elsewhere on the building), across the street from the park.
“NOW” (2023), the eight-foot sculpture of a female figure emerging from a lotus blossom, stands out glinting in yellow bronze amongst her nine stone-carved, historical male associates including Confucius, Justinian, Lycurgus, Moses, and Zoroaster. A statue of Islam’s prophet Muhammad was also part of the lineup until it was removed in 1955. With gnarled, tentacular roots in place of arms and feet and parted hair twisted into spiraling ram horns, the figure assumes a fluid, autonomous energy rooted in natural and mystical power.
“Women in my work are always complex, proactive, confident, intelligent and in their playful stances connected to the past in imaginative ways without being tied to a heteronormative lineage or conventional representations of diaspora and nation,” Sikander said in her artist statement for the installation, co-commissioned with the Public Art University of Houston System.
The figure appears again in the park grounds on a monumental scale in “Witness” (2023), adorned with a hoop skirt wrapped with calligraphic mosaic text that reads havah, meaning “air” in Urdu. Placed by one of the entrances and across from the large dog run, “Witness” is privy to a large volume of two- and four-legged foot traffic, spawning interest from curious passersby who are drawn in by her warm glow on the chilly, overcast days of a New York winter. Both “NOW” and “Witness” (2023) stand practically naked with a reimagined jabot, the ornamental chest frill folded into Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (RBG) standard courtroom uniform, draped across their collarbones and torsos.
“Witness” is accompanied by an artificial reality element accessed via Snapchat. Having deleted my Snapchat account in 2018, I didn’t make a point of trying it out and I don’t know many people in my age range who still have the app installed, let alone use it for reasons beyond buying weed or sending disappearing nudes. But perhaps it’s a thoughtful and more palatable way to engage adolescents with the work.
The exhibition also showcases “Reckoning” (2020), Sikander’s four-minute animated film that’s on view from 5 to 10 pm daily on the side lawn.
Being that her primary modes of artistry prop up Indo-Persian miniature art, Sikander’s transition into large-scale sculpture is noteworthy for the cause. In her artist statement, she references that a woman, Lady Justice with her sword of authority, scale balance of equilibrium, and occasional blindfold of impartiality, has been the “image” of justice for centuries despite the fact that women have only recently been afforded a jurisdictional voice.
Referencing the death of RBG and the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, Sikander also speaks to the fact that those very rights afforded to women are at imminent risk. “In the process, it is the dismissal, too, of the indefatigable spirit of the women, who have been collectively fighting for their right to their own bodies over generations,” Sikander said. “However, the enduring power lies with the people who step into and remain in the fight for equality. That spirit and grit is what I want to capture in both the sculptures.”
“NOW” and “Witness” enforce the intrinsic ties between womanhood and nature. The mosaic element of “Witness” incorporates botanical and floral motifs, with its color palette reflecting the changing seasons. Some elements of the installation touch on themes explored by artists like Wangechi Mutu, Jaishri Abichandani, and Simone Leigh.
Many park visitors stopped in their tracks to examine “Witness,” drawn to her straight pose and wide-open eyes. Some shrugged and passed her by, while others stood for several minutes to take photos and video-call their friends while their dogs tugged impatiently at their leashes in anticipation of the dog run.
One admirer in particular, a Tribeca-based early childhood educator named Sarah Sultan, admitted to me that she wasn’t that taken by the sculpture at first glance, but grew to enjoy it more after talking to me about it.
“We as women cover our bodies and shrink ourselves down to a size that people would find acceptable. But she is, literally towering over all of us,” Sultan said.
A pair of sisters visiting from Europe who preferred not to be named remarked that the mosaic element was the most exciting part of “Witness,” focusing their phone cameras on the small pieces of glass arranged to form flowers and leaves.
“We were just saying to each other that we need to look up where to take a class because the mosaic is so lovely, it inspires me,” one of the sisters said. Regarding the woman figure herself, they admitted that there was some confusion about what form she took from a distance.
“When I came up from the distance, I didn’t read the blurb, so it looked like a ram from when I looked at first,” the same sister told me. “And then you it’s a woman. Hey, it’s empowerment and beauty. Nothing can be done without women.”