Artist of Sculpture Beheaded in Houston Wants It Displayed As Is

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Shahzia Sikander’s sculpture “Witness” after vandalism on the University of Houston campus (© Shahzia Sikander; photo by Abdurrahman Danquah)

After Shahzia Sikander’s outdoor sculpture on display at the University of Houston campus was beheaded in the early hours of Monday, July 8, the artist made it clear that she does not want the school to repair the piece.

“Transparency is most important to counter concealment and secrecy,” Sikander wrote in a message to Hyperallergic. “The damage reflects the hateful misogynistic act and it should not be forgotten. It is part of the history of the work and is a testament to the power of art.”

Kevin Quinn, executive director of media relations at the university, told Hyperallergic that the school “respect[s] the artist’s wishes and will leave the sculpture as is.”

Sikander’s “Witness” (2023) is an 18-foot-tall gilded sculpture of a woman with ram horn-shaped braids and tentacular limbs, hovering in mid-air while donning a hoop skirt and a jabot collar in a nod to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The piece is one of three works co-commissioned in 2023 by the Public Art University of Houston System and the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York City. Sikander debuted the work at the Manhattan park as a part of the temporary exhibition Havah … to breathe, air, life, before it journeyed to the Texas campus.

In an artist statement, Sikander noted that “Witness” forcibly reinserts women as participants in and spectators of patriarchal law and morality, demanding agency and autonomy through natural elements in light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Justice Ginsburg’s 2020 death. When it came time for the works to be installed at the University of Houston campus last February, Sikander and the school were met with intense backlash from far-right, anti-choice lobbyists and organizations that decried the work as a “satanic abortion idol” and petitioned for the exhibition’s cancelation.

As the Texas-based anti-abortion lobbying group Right to Life threatened to protest on campus during the exhibition’s opening reception in late February, the university opted to cancel Sikander’s artist talk onsite and published a document detailing the controversy surrounding the artwork on its website.

Earlier this week, a University of Houston spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the school believes the vandalism of Sikander’s sculpture was “intentional,” noting that the school’s police department reviewed footage of the incident and is currently conducting an investigation.

Despite the messaging from the school, some remain under the impression that the sculpture was damaged by Hurricane Beryl as the storm made landfall in the city early on Monday.

Neither the university nor its police department immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request to view the footage, and have not confirmed whether they will publicly release it. Sikander told Hyperallergic that she also requested access to the footage and has not yet received it.

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