Texas School Cancels Artist’s Talk After Anti-Abortion Group Complaints

The University of Houston canceled a scheduled artist talk and opening celebration for a public art exhibition in light of protest threats from an anti-abortion lobbying group that called one of the works a “satanic abortion idol.” Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander was meant to speak at the school on Wednesday, February 28, about the temporary installation of Havah … to breathe air, life (2023) at the Cullen Family Plaza of Public Art on the school’s campus.

Sikander’s exhibition, consisting of three works pertaining to the feminine divine and the status of women’s autonomy in the United States, debuted at Madison Square Park and the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse’s rooftop last year. One work, “NOW” (2023), depicting a female figure emerging from a lotus blossom, remains on the courthouse rooftop, while the sculpture “Witness” (2023) and the short animated film “Reckoning” (2020) traveled to the University of Houston.

“Witness” is an 18-foot-tall sculpture of an almost nude female figure with parted hair braided into spiraling ram horns and tentacular roots in place of arms and legs, hovering from the earth but grounded by an enormous hoop skirt decorated with colorful mosaic glass text that reads havah, meaning “air” in Urdu as well as “breathe” or “to give life” in Hebrew (Havah in the Torah is Eve in the Bible.) The figure also wears a reimagined jabot around her neck — the favored accessory of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG).

After the University of Houston confirmed that “Witness” and “Reckoning” were coming to the campus, the Christian anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life published a petition on its website on February 7 demanding the exhibition’s cancellation, stating that “disobedience to God certainly should not be esteemed by society, much less lauded with a statue,” and that the work was “honoring child sacrifice.” The organization also invited people in the Houston area to protest Sikander’s talk on February 28.

The university sent out a cancellation notice for the opening event in a newsletter, after the petition gained media attention, and later published a document on its website explaining Sikander’s work and how it may be read as controversial, as the Art Newspaper initially reported.

“The stories about the protests have been circulating for a number of days,” Sikander told Hyperallergic. “The UH responded with FAQs on their website without consulting me, citing that the work is offensive to some people.”

Sikander has spoken at length about the work’s relation to RBG’s death and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and noted in her artist statement that “the enduring power lies with the people who step into and remain in the fight for equality.” Though the opening events were canceled, “Witness” has already been installed and is currently on view at the Cullen Family Plaza.

With regards to the second work, Sikander’s film “Reckoning,” University of Houston spokesperson Bryan Luhn told Hyperallergic that the school “won’t be able to meet the scheduled installation date of February 28.” It is unclear when or if the piece will be shown.

Despite the event cancellations, Texas Right to Life and other local anti-abortion coalitions have expressed on social media that they intend to protest near the sculpture on February 28 to “ensure they [the University] know that we will not be satisfied until the statue is taken down.”

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