Artist’s Monument to Women Beheaded at University of Houston

Artist Shahzia Sikander’s monumental sculpture “Witness” (2023) was beheaded in the early hours of Monday morning, July 8, on the grounds of the University of Houston campus.

The 18-foot-tall sculpture depicting a female figure in a hoop skirt and jabot with braided hair shaped into ram horns and vine-like appendages was installed for a temporary exhibition at the university earlier this year. In February, anti-abortion groups denounced the Pakistani-American artist’s work as a “satanic abortion idol” and threatened to protest the display, resulting in the university’s decision to cancel Sikander’s campus lecture for the opening reception.

“Witness” was vandalized as Hurricane Beryl made landfall along the Texas coast, causing power outages and damages across the campus and city, said Shawn Lindsey, associate vice president of Media Relations for the University of Houston.

“The damage is believed to be intentional. The University of Houston Police Department is currently investigating the matter,” Lindsey told Hyperallergic. “Conservators have also been called in to advise on the necessary repairs. We have been in contact with the artist to repair the artwork as quickly as possible.”

It remains unclear whether the sculpture’s head was removed from the premises or recovered offsite. 

Sikander has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. 

“Witness” is among three works included in Sikander’s 2023 project Havah … to breathe, air, life, co-commissioned by the Public Art University of Houston System and the Madison Square Park Conservancy, and initially displayed at the park in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. 

Referencing the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sikander said in her statement about the project that she sought to capture the “spirit and grit” of the women fighting to maintain rights over their bodies. She added that the works “demand a reimagining of the feminine not simply as Lady Justice with her scale, but of the female as an active agency, a thinker, a participant as well as a witness to the patriarchal history of art and law.”

“We anticipated that on a university campus, a center of learning, there would be important dialogue around ‘Witness’ and the artist’s practice. We did not anticipate this extreme, violent act,” Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the Conservancy’s artistic director and chief curator, told Hyperallergic.

Earlier this month, an artist’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary on view in an Austrian cathedral was also beheaded by an unknown vandal following protests by conservative religious groups who viewed the artwork as “blasphemous.”

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