Statue honoring women and justice vandalized at University of Houston
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Statue honoring women and justice vandalized at University of Houston
Artist Shahzia Sikander with “Witness,” an 18-foot sculpture on display in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, on Jan 21, 2023. Officials at the University of Houston said on Tuesday, July 9, 2024, that a vandal attacked Shahzia Sikander’s sculpture “Witness,” beheading the work, which is a monument to women and justice installed on campus. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- Officials at the University of Houston said Tuesday that a vandal attacked Shahzia Sikander’s sculpture “Witness,” beheading the work, which is a monument to women and justice installed on campus. Footage of the destruction, which occurred early Monday morning amid the harsh weather of Hurricane Beryl and power outages, was obtained by campus police, officials told the artist.

Sikander, a Pakistani American artist, often creates works that examine questions of politics, language and empire. The damaged statue was one of the artist’s first major public sculptures in a nearly 30-year career.

“We were disappointed to learn the statue was damaged early Monday morning as Hurricane Beryl was hitting Houston. The damage is believed to be intentional,” Kevin Quinn, executive director of media relations for the university, said in a statement to The New York Times. “The University of Houston Police Department is currently investigating the matter.”

On Monday, Rachel G. Mohl, the university’s head of public art programs, wrote to alert Sikander to the destruction, saying she was “in utter shock and deeply saddened that this happened.” In the email, reviewed by the Times, Mohl wrote: “This has disturbed all of us, and we are working to fix this unbelievable and regrettable act as quickly as possible amidst the immense damage that the hurricane brought.”

For several months, the 18-foot-tall statue of a female figure has been under increased surveillance since an anti-abortion group drew attention to the sculpture after its installation in February, calling it a “satanic” memorial to abortion and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The university subsequently canceled a talk by Sikander and an opening celebration. Anti-abortion demonstrators then held a small protest near the sculpture. University officials have not said if the sculpture’s defacement was related to the activists.

“It was a very violent act of hate, and it should be investigated as a crime,” Sikander said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The artist said that viewers may have misread the symbolism behind her artwork, which includes hornlike braids, tentacle arms and a lace collar. Her intention was not specifically to comment on abortion or Supreme Court justices, she said, but rather to create a broader message about a woman’s power in the justice system.

The statue was originally commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy in Manhattan, which installed it in January 2023 within the park. It was part of a larger response to statues on the rooftop of a nearby courthouse, which showcased male lawgivers like Confucius and Moses. Sikander said at the time that the sculpture wore a hoop skirt inspired by the stained-glass dome of the courthouse, symbolizing the need to “break the legal glass ceiling.”

“This was an optimistic, forward-looking vision for justice,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, artistic director and chief curator of the conservancy. “And now that vision has vanished.”

“We expect there will be a thorough investigation that holds those accountable for this violent act,” she added, explaining that the beheaded statue remained under a tarp while conservators examined the damage and surveyed the possibility of repairs.

University officials said they are contending with the hurricane’s destruction as they investigate who attacked Sikander’s sculpture.

Sikander, who has exhibited in museums around the world and recently staged a large show as a collateral event for the Venice Biennale, said she is still processing what happened to a sculpture that is arguably her most recognizable work to date. But the artist has decided that she wants to leave the damage visible to onlookers.

“I don’t want to ‘repair’ or conceal,” Sikander said. “I want to ‘expose,’ leave it damaged. Make a new piece, and many more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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