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The sculpture "Witness," which shows a towering, golden female figure with a judicial collar and thick braids resembling ram horns.

The sculpture “Witness” came to the University of Houston after an installation at its original home in Madison Square Park in New York.

Public Art UHS

The University of Houston canceled an event to introduce a new sculpture exhibited on campus after an outpouring of objections from antiabortion groups. The activists claim the sculpture displays satanic imagery and abortion rights messaging.

University officials say the event never happened last week because the artist was unavailable to give a scheduled talk. But the artist wrote on social media that she wasn’t the one who canceled.

The sculpture, “Witness,” by Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander, is slated for an eight-month stay at the Public Art of the University of Houston System collection. It features an 18-foot woman with thick, gold braids that resemble rams’ horns and arms and legs that look like roots. The woman also wears a hooped skirt with mosaic details and a distinctive collar that is an homage to the signature lace judicial collars worn by late U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“The recent focus on reproductive rights in the United States after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion, comes to the forefront,” Sikander wrote in an artist statement describing the symbolism of “Witness” and a second sculpture called “NOW” installed in New York. “The enduring power lies with the people who step into and remain in the fight for equality. That spirit and grit is what I want to capture in both the sculptures.”

The sculptures are part of a multimedia collection, co-commissioned with the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York, called “Havah … to breathe air, life,” referring to the Urdu word for “air” or “atmosphere” and the name of the biblical figure Eve in Hebrew and Arabic.

Sikander was scheduled to give a talk about the artwork at an opening event on Feb. 28, but the sculpture swiftly drew condemnation from antiabortion organizations on and off campus, The Texan and other local news outlets reported.

Texas Right to Life, an antiabortion advocacy organization, released a blistering statement, describing the sculpture as having “satanic imagery to honor abortion” and memorialize Ginsburg. The group referred to it as an “idol” with “braids shaped like goat horns and arms like tentacles” and called for it to be protested. The statement also highlighted an interview Sikander did with The New York Times in which she said her other sculpture was called “NOW” because reproductive rights are currently under attack. ("NOW” is also a gold, female figure with ram-like horns and roots for arms and legs.) The group also took issue with Sikander saying Eve could be considered the “first lawbreaker” in a video about her artwork.

“Disobedience to God certainly should not be esteemed by society, much less lauded with a statue,” the statement read. “On the contrary, art should reflect truth, goodness, and beauty: three timeless values that reveal the nature of God. Art cannot have beauty without truth. Art cannot have truth without goodness. A statue honoring child sacrifice has no place in Texas.”

Coogs for Life, an antiabortion student group on campus, also said on Instagram that the artwork “idolizes abortion.”

“Moments like these are what remind us of what we stand for, and how much we are committed to it,” the post read. “The pro-life movement persisted under Roe v. Wade, and we will persist even with the erection of this statue on our doorstep.”


Bryan Luhn, interim director of media relations at University of Houston, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the opening event was canceled because of the “unavailability of the artist.”

“According to Rachel Mohr, Executive Director and Chief Curator, Public Art UHS, the artist stated on February 20 that she does not want to come to Houston and the event was subsequently cancelled,” he said.

However, Sikander told a slightly different version of the story in a statement on Instagram.

“I did not ask for the opening event and artist talk at the University of Houston, scheduled for Feb 28th, to be cancelled or postponed,” she wrote. “After calls were made for campus protests, the university announced publicly that the artist talk/opening event was cancelled. There had been an internal discussion that the event might be replaced by a virtual presentation, or alternatively postponed, but nothing was confirmed.”

“I have proactively offered dates to reschedule,” she added.

University officials seem to have no plans to hold the presentation at a later date.

“Typically, we have always scheduled the artist lecture at the opening of the event to garner interest in the art,” Luhn said.

Amid the backlash, the university also put out a Frequently Asked Questions document about the exhibit with justifications for displaying the statue, including Sikander’s accolades as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow; her ties to Houston, where she formerly did an artist residency program; and her goal to “give visibility to groups that have gone unnoticed and to bring forth multiple interpretations of symbols in different cultures.”

However, the document acknowledges that some features of “NOW” and “Witness” are “offensive to some people” and notes that temporary art displays on campus are funded through “private philanthropy.”

“Displaying a temporary work from an artist is never meant to be a celebration of the artist or his/her work but to simply provide a platform for artistic expression that encourages critical reflection and exploration of important issues,” the document reads. “A part of student education is to understand that art can evoke diverse interpretations and emotions and that we must find ways to engage in constructive dialogue.”

Luhn noted that there have been a couple of protests since the sculpture came to campus, including a “memorial” display of pink crosses by Students for Life of America, a national antiabortion student organization. Protesters have been “peaceful” and “compliant with our freedom of expression policy,” though there is always security present when there are planned protests, he said.

Free Speech Worries

Freedom of speech advocates raised concerns about the university’s move to cancel the art event.

PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy organization, called on the University of Houston to set a new date for Sikander’s talk.

“Artistic freedom is not optional on college campuses,” Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager for free expression and education at PEN America, wrote in a statement, issued the day after the canceled event. “As a public university, the University of Houston has an obligation to protect Sikander’s right to free expression against outside groups who wish to silence her views on abortion and women’s rights.”

Shahverdian added that the event should be rescheduled “immediately,” because “anything less would be a grave violation of her rights as an artist and the rights of students and faculty who wish to experience her art.”

Graham Piro, program officer for the campus rights advocacy team at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said antiabortion groups have a right to protest the art, but the university canceling the event “sends the wrong message” to students. He believes the move emboldens critics to try to shut down exhibits or speakers they oppose rather than protest them in such a way that still allows others on campus to engage with the art or artist.

He agrees the event should be rescheduled.

“The university has a real opportunity to publicly affirm that it supports the First Amendment … and that it wants to build a really robust free speech culture on campus,” he said.

Debates over art installations haven’t been unique to Houston.

Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, for example, rejected an artist’s work for an exhibit last year because it incorporated interviews on women’s reproductive health, purportedly violating the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a state law that prohibits the use of public money to “promote” abortion. An art exhibit at State College of Florida was also canceled last year by its organizer, an arts and education nonprofit called Embracing Our Differences, after college officials asked for the removal of diversity, equity and inclusion language.

Piro noted that thorny questions about campus free speech have become all the more pressing since the Israel-Hamas war began roiling campuses and campus leaders have had to parse what’s “protected speech” versus “unprotected harassment or genuine threats to a student’s physical safety.” He added that art has been at the center of some of those conflicts as well. Notably, Indiana University at Bloomington canceled an exhibit by a Palestinian American artist at its Eskenazi Museum of Art in December amid tensions over campus antisemitism and the war.

“When you’re at college, you’re going to be exposed to things that may make you uncomfortable or that you may find offensive,” he said. But “the best response to speech you disapprove of, or speech you don’t like, is with more speech, not with censorship.”

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