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Shahzia Sikander statue promoting women’s justice at University of Houston beheaded

An outdoor sculpture by artist Shahzia Sikander at the University of Houston (UH) has been vandalized in the wake of anti-abortion protests on campus. The 18-foot-tall bronze effigy of a mythological female figure was beheaded in the early morning of July 8 during Hurricane Beryl’s power outages in Texas. According to The New York Times, campus officials informed the artist that they had obtained footage of the incident; they have not yet confirmed whether the destruction was related to the activists.

“The damage is believed to be intentional,” Kevin Quinn, executive director of media relations at UH, said Times. “The University of Houston Police Department is currently investigating the matter.”

Sikander is a Pakistani American artist whose work explores the post-colonial implications of identity. She is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” award, and a survey of her work is on display in conjunction with this year’s Venice Biennale. The vandalized statue, Witness (2023), one of the artist’s first public installations in a career spanning nearly three decades, had come under increasing fire from right-wing groups, particularly the anti-abortion organization Texas Right to Life, which deemed the work “satanic” after its unveiling in February 2024. The work depicts a horned woman whose limbs dissolve into a tangle of roots, held up by a bow-skirted fixture. Her lace collar has been interpreted as an allusion to the one worn by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late US Supreme Court Justice.

Witnessa comment about women’s bravery in the face of injustice, took on an increasingly charged meaning in connection with Roe v. Wades repeal in 2022. After a critically acclaimed five months on display in New York’s Madison Square Park, the statue made its way to UH, where protests led administrators to cancel a call by Sikander and the shelf an accompanying video work by the artist.

Sikander told Times that the beheading was a “very violent act of hate, and it should be investigated as a crime”.

In a comment to ART newsQuinn announced UH’s intention to repair the damage Witness, notes that the university has been in contact with Sikander to get the piece fixed “as quickly as possible”. Sikander, on the other hand, told Times that she didn’t want to “‘repair’ or hide,” instead she wanted to “‘reveal’, leave it damaged. Make a new piece and many more.”

The Witness desecration is just one of a number of examples of politically motivated art vandalism this month alone – a sculpture of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus was beheaded at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Linz, Austria, on July 1 after being labeled “blasphemous” by local conservative groups. In Charlottesville, Virginia, an outdoor banner display was organized in the city’s Downtown Mall to commemorate the 60th anniversary of desegregation in the United States. chop down from the trees to which it had been secured.

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