A diverse and inclusive art world in the making
by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Shraddha NairPublished on : Apr 05, 2023
Havah… to breathe, air, life (2023) is a multi-part project imagined and brought to life by visual artist Shahzia Sikander. The first part of the project is a towering 18-foot bronze sculpture titled Witness (2023), which sits in the maze of Madison Square Park. Witness looks like something that appeared in your dream before. The dream of a feminine figure levitating, with somewhat fluid arms and legs, in brightly shimmering rays of light. It simmers with a divine yet dynamic presence. The second part of Havah is titled NOW (2023) and is installed on the roof of the courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department of the State Supreme Court. The two feminine forms seem to be in dialogue with each other. Both appear to guard the land she sits atop, surveying with her all seeing eyes. The striking statues by Sikander are part of a visual art project co-commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.
Pakistani-American artist Sikander explains that the conceptualisation of this installation unfolded organically over the course of several conversations and site visits. The collaboration began when a survey of Sikander’s work was presented at Extraordinary Realities, curated by the RISD museum curator, Jan Howard. Sikander tells us, “The show had opened at the Morgan Library to great acclaim and there was great buzz in the city. That momentum was exciting to have in NYC and I was fortunate to build on it when Madison Square Park Conservancy invited me to put a proposal for their January 2023 slot. In one of the site visits to the courthouse, it became clear that I wanted to propose a female representation on the roof to counter the male hegemony.”
Sikander’s installation stands tall and strong but appears as though made of air. It possesses an ethereal nature in contrast to its form. Havah… is simultaneously moving and still. It is both steeped in ancient mythology and symbolism, yet also exactly relevant to our present moment. Its heavy symbology ties together the hybrid, ever-evolving, multicultural nature of the feminine presence in our day-to-day lives. The fluid arms in the figure refer to an amorphous idea of the body, a creature which is regenerative, immortal and self-contained. It represents the resilience of women, and the rejection of pigeonholing or stereotyping the feminine spirit. The lotus in NOW alludes to its popular symbolism in several ancient cultures, expressing humility, awakening and clarity. Its circular form refers to the microcosm and macrocosm in its arabesque, iconographical value. The braided hair on the sculpture art draws inspiration from ancient Buddhist and African culture. The longitudinal and latitudinal lines also are seen in the skirt, building on the sense of inclusiveness in the image.
The MSPC chief art curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport describes Sikander’s practice as ‘distinguished,’ recalling her first memory of the sculpture artist’s creative prowess. She says, “I first saw Shahzia Sikander's work in 1997 when she was included in the Whitney Biennial. Since that time, she has exemplified how an artist can stretch their materials and areas of inquiry in new.” After the showcase in New York City, which ends in June, the installation will travel to museums, sculpture parks, and public art venues across the country. Following its stay in New York, Havah...to breathe, air, life will open this fall through Public Art University of Houston System; UHS also co-commissioned Havah.
Sikander’s artistic process starts with reading and research, engagement with communities, and careful listening. The artist works across genres and media, embodying a trans-disciplinary approach to image-making. The artist says, “I often cull stories that centre women; what is women’s sense of self versus someone else’s idea of us? When I research historical visual traditions, I also inspire to cultivate new associations for trenchant historical symbols from more than one vantage point.”
The sculpture is iconic for many reasons, but it is of particular interest because of the destruction and vandalism of multiple statues that was seen in the United States of America in the past few years. One instance in New York City itself, saw the vandalism of the Christopher Columbus statue at Central Park. The erection of a statue which represents feminine form and inclusive thought can be a threatening idea to some. "A successful function of public art is to open up important timely conversations. I am thrilled that my work is allowing different discussions to take shape around female representation and the lack thereof in patriarchal spaces such as law and art," Sikander tells STIR.
Havah…to breathe, air, life is a nod to the many battles faced by the women today. One of the many that inspired her was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an American lawyer renowned for her work towards women’s rights. The presence of a feminine form in the sculpture is, intentionally or not, a political, feminist stance—one which says more about preceding works that have been installed in this park than this one. Sikander mentions, "Femininity to me is the tension between women and power. How society perceives such a dynamic, and how erasure is enacted by the social forces that shape women’s lives.”
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