Opening January 2023, Havah…to breathe, air, life Merges Sikander’s Explorations into Sculpture and Video in an Exhibition That Reconsiders Traditional Representations of Power
This winter, significant new works on the theme of justice by artist Shahzia Sikander will be featured in a major multimedia exhibition at Madison Square Park. Presented simultaneously in the park and at the adjacent Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the exhibition Havah…to breathe, air, life features two new large-scale sculptures—one within the park that can be transformed through augmented reality and another atop the Courthouse rooftop, the first female figure to adorn one of its ten plinths. Additionally, a recent video animation by Sikander will be on view in the park, visually intertwining the distinct elements. The exhibition is a culmination of Sikander’s exploration of female representation in monuments and marks her first major, site-specific outdoor exhibition in sculptural form. Havah…to breathe, air, lifeis co-commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy and Public Art of the University of Houston System (Public Art UHS). The exhibition will be on view in New York from January 17 through June 4, 2023, before traveling to Houston.
“Through luminous allegorical female figures, Shahzia’s project asks who is historically represented and who wields power in the justice system, both symbolically and actually,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy. “Shahzia continues to innovate artistic forms, and Havah, meaning ‘air’ or ‘
“With Havah…to breathe, air, life, Shahzia demonstrates how justice is conceptually and actively vibrant across cultures and genders,” said Maria C. Gaztambide, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Public Art UHS. “And yet, while the necessity of justice is universal, it is often blindly applied. Shahzia brings to the fore the imbalances of gender and race through this exceptional work. We are proud to join forces with Madison Square Park in bringing it to fruition, while amplifying its reach beyond New York City.”
Widely regarded for renewing international interest in the Indo-Persian miniature form and for leading the field by innovating a feminist neo-miniature movement, Sikander was inspired to work in sculpture while she served on the New York Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers in 2017.
In the park, Sikander places a monumental female figure that teems with symbolic imagery, titled Witness. Wearing a hoop skirt inspired by the courtroom’s stained-glass ceiling dome and detailed with mosaic, the figure’s arms and lower legs swirl into a decorative motif suggesting tree roots, a reference to what the artist has called the “self-rootedness of the female form; it can carry its roots wherever it goes.” The figure’s hair is braided to resemble a ram’s horns, identified in Eastern and Western traditions as a symbol of strength. Snap AR technology will bring the figure to life with cascading, intricate floral adornments. Along the park’s pathways, LED screens display Sikander’s Reckoning (2020), an animated video that unites the multiple elements in the exhibition with lush and vibrant depictions of a flowering landscape.
Atop the historic Courthouse, NOW, another female figure—similar in form to the sculpture in the park, but without the embellished skirt—arises from a colorful lotus, a symbol of wisdom. The work’s connection with the Courthouse is imbued with meaning as the building’s rooftop is crowned by plinths inhabited by statues of nine historic and religious male legislators, including Confucius, Justinian, Lycurgus, Moses, and Zoroaster—but without a single woman represented atop a plinth until Sikander’s installation. Sikander’s work both physically and symbolically elevates the female figure, putting her on level plane with the traditionally patriarchal embodiments of justice and power. This installation is part of recent efforts by the Court of the Appellate Division to add new artworks from diverse contemporary artists to its courthouse, adding modern perspectives on justice to the existing murals and statuary that decorate the building.
“While our existing art is beautiful and meaningful, it has remained static,” said the Court’s Presiding Justice, Rolando T. Acosta. “Theories of justice have gradually expanded to include previously marginalized groups, and we want to invite voices from such groups into our courthouse to gather new perspectives on our system of justice.”
Justice Dianne T. Renwick, Chair of the Court’s Committee that leads this effort, added, “As we seek to broaden the visibility of less-often-recognized contributors to law and justice in our society, what better way to start than with the figure of a woman? Women are foundations of our society. Throughout history we have been champions for freedom, equal rights, and justice. For the first time since the Court’s historic opening well over 100 years ago, the figure of a woman finally and rightfully will stand on equal footing with the male philosophers and lawgivers who line the other pedestals. This type of collaboration is unprecedented in New York State and we are very excited about this endeavor and the possibilities for other courts.”
Hear the artist in her interview with Jeffrey Brown at PBS in 2021 about her work, below.
For the exhibition, Sikander and the Conservancy are working closely with appropriate City agencies, Thornton Tomasetti engineers, and the Presiding Justice at the Courthouse to establish a model that inspires future collaborative works amongst artists, nonprofits, and American courthouses. Courthouse tours and public conversations with the Justices and Sikander are planned in conjunction with the exhibition. Details on these and other public programs will be announced in the coming months.
“The Conservancy strives to spark new perspectives on our public spaces,” said the Conservancy’s Executive Director Holly Leicht. “Shahzia Sikander’s exhibition achieves this by not only physically expanding our programming into the surrounding community, but also by creating a rich dialogue about justice, particularly in connection to women. We are excited to pioneer new partnerships with our neighboring New York State Appellate Courthouse and Public Art UHS to bring to life this timely installation.”
Havah…to breathe, air, life is organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator; Tom Reidy, Deputy Director, Finance and Special Projects; and Truth Murray-Cole, Curatorial Manager. Holly Leicht is the Conservancy’s Executive Director. Maria C. Gaztambide, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Public Art UHS, leads the Houston presentation, which will be on view from October 2023 through June 2024.
About the Artist
Shahzia Sikander (American, b. Pakistan 1969) expands and subverts pre-modern and classical Central and South-Asian painting traditions through a broad range of materials and methods, including miniature painting, works on paper, video, mosaic, and sculpture. Distinguished for launching the neo-miniature movement, Sikander investigates conceptual premises in language, trade, empire, migration through feminist perspectives, colonial, and imperial power structures through her far-reaching practice.
Sikander’s innovative work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her traveling exhibition on the first 15 years of her art practice, Extraordinary Realities, opened at The Morgan Library in New York in 2021 and traveled to the RISD Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Shahzia Sikander: Unbound, opened in 2021 at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and explored the artist’s innovative use of manuscripts.
Sikander is a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and received the United States Medal of Arts in 2012. The artist became a Fukuoka Laureate in 2022 as a recipient of the Arts and Culture Prize from Fukuoka City, Japan. She earned her B.F.A. from National College of Arts in Lahore, an M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design, and participated in Glassell School of Art’s CORE Program at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Shahzia Sikander: Havah….to breathe, air, life will be on view from January 17 through June 4, 2023 in Madison Square Park and atop the New York State Appellate Division Courthouse rooftop before traveling to Houston, Texas.
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Take a look inside the New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court at Madison Square Park.