Shahzia Sikander

(American, b. Pakistan 1969)

Havah…to breathe, air, life, 2023

Co-Commissioned with Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York

Spring 2024

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; LED tiles and aluminum truss system, dimensions variable.

For the multimedia exhibition Havah… to breathe, air, life, artist Shahzia Sikander has created major new work on the theme of justice. The work in its entirety is composed of four distinct elements, two of which will be on display at the University of Houston Spring 2024. Havah… is a culmination of Sikander’s exploration of female representation in public monuments and marks her first major, site-specific outdoor exhibition in sculptural form. Disrupting more classic forms of public sculpture, the  artist proclaims, “I have always had an affinity for the anti-monument within my practice.” It is the history of monumental public works, from which women and people of color have largely been absent, that provide a starting point for Sikander to reinsert the female figure into our field of visual culture. The title for the work, Havah, is taken from the word meaning “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew. It is precisely these ephemeral qualities that the artist brings to this work that mark it as distinct from more traditional public monuments we are accustomed to viewing. These temporary artworks are just that—works that are never meant to be fixed and unchanging, but are fluid in their space and their meaning.   

The large-scale sculpture Witness (2023) is a grand allegorical female figure that allows for multiple meanings and possibilities. With its unrooted arms and legs, the figure is literally ungrounded, floating, resisting permanence. She is part of a diaspora whose home is where one chooses to put roots. Her skirt is made to mimic the domed and stained glass ceiling of the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, and also operates as the figure’s uplifting protection. It also references longitudinal and latitudinal lines.This skirt is adorned with Arabic writing (“havah”) that is decorated with mosaics composed of many small colorful tiles. The golden figure shines in the sun and glows in the night’s light, with a radiance appropriate for an everyday-goddess. Her head is decorated with golden rams horns—two thick braids—that form a crown of female potency. The corresponding work, Reckoning (2020), is a video projection animation by Sikander. The video begins with a murmuration of what looks like golden seeds, or specs of light, splashing into one another; individual and whole simultaneously. Two entangled warriors appear. Their battle is a graceful dance. Sikander lends us a lesson in how to engage in a better, more respectful, form of dialogue between two oppositions. This airy animation, in pixelated form, is a visual lesson on the timelessness of all matter, reminding us that Mother Nature (another allegorical goddess) is the only essence that prevails. Havah…to breathe, air, life is co-commissioned by Public Art UHS and Madison Square Park Conservancy and it is the first major co-commission for both institutions. The exhibition was first on view in Madison Square Park from January 17 – June 4, 2023, and it will open at the University of Houston Spring 2024.

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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