Shahzia Sikander

(American, b. Pakistan 1969)

Havah…to breathe, air, life, 2023

Co-Commissioned with Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York

February 28th – October 31st, 2024

The multimedia exhibition Havah…to breathe, air, life, by artist Shahzia Sikander presents two major works that explore ideas of cultural interconnectedness and female representation. The monumental sculpture Witness (2023) and the video animation Reckoning (2020) feature allegorical female forms that combine Central and South Asian artistic traditions with contemporary practice. As such, Sikander reevaluates the history of public works, from which women and people of color have largely been absent, while exploring overlapping cultural identities. Indeed, the title, Havah, is taken from the word meaning “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew.


Witness represents an 18-foot golden female figure with arms and legs resembling intertwined roots. She is literally ungrounded, floating and resisting permanence, as she is part of a diaspora whose home is where she chooses. According to the artist, the form is self-rooted and “can carry its roots wherever it goes,” making it able to have roots across cultures, places and times. It also explores issues of being part of a diaspora, having to move around from place to place and how that can affect one’s identity.

The sculpture has braids shaped like ram horns, representing the unification of disparate strands. Ram horns have significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well as Central and South Asian beliefs, often associated with power and valor. The artist has said the braids link to one of her paintings that represents the courage, fluidity and resilience of the feminine. Her skirt is adorned with Arabic writing in mosaic stating “havah,” and its rings resemble the longitudinal and latitudinal lines on a globe, a proclamation of the figure’s authority in the world. 

The corresponding video work, Reckoning, illustrates a graceful dance between entangled warriors, dueling within a continuously changing landscape. With colorful, airy animation, Sikander imparts a lesson in respectful dialogue, emphasizing the timelessness of all matter and the prevailing essence of Mother Nature.
Exhibition Elements: 
  • Witness, 2023: Painted milled high-density foam, steel, fiberglass, glass tile; 18 x 13 x 13 feet
  • Reckoning, 2020: HD video animation with sound, music by Du Yun, animation by Patrick O’Rourke

The Houston presentation of the exhibition is generously supported by The Brown Foundation Inc., the Madison Charitable Foundation Inc. and Scott and Judy Nyquist.

Screenshot 2024-01-19 at 3.58.24 PM


About the Artist:

Shahzia Sikander 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.


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