In his essay in the Opinion section of the New York Times on Feb. 1, 2023, “Be Open to Spiritual Experience. Also, Be Really Careful,” Ross Douthat’s seemingly amorphous warning is really aimed at the two new statues by citizen-of-the-world visual artist Shahzia Sikander, appearing in the public space of the roof of the New York Appellate Court and adjacent to it, in the shape of a flowering female form installed in Madison Square Park.
In one of the more bizarre columns of his that I’ve read, Douthat claims he wants to both “defend the rationality of this kind of spiritual experimentation” (which he sees manifested in Sikander’s work), then to warn us about its dangers. While I have no idea what he means by “the rationality of spiritual experimentation,” he attacks what he sees as three contemporary manifestations of it: the current Tik Tok craze, the DMT or “psychonautic” drug experimentation culture, and finally, Sikander’s “statue on a New York courthouse, occupying a plinth near famous lawgivers like Moses and Confucius. It’s a golden woman, or at least a female figure, with braided hair shaped like horns, roots or tendrils for arms and feet, rising from a lotus flower.” Whilst acknowledging that this “golden woman” who wears “a version of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar” is meant to evoke “female power in a historically male-dominated legal world and to protest Roe v. Wade’s reversal” as the artist herself has stated, what disturbs the liberal sentiments of Douthat nonetheless is the fact that “the work is clearly an attempt at a religious icon as well, one forged in a blurring of spiritual traditions.”
It is this “blurring”, or more aptly, a “queering” of heteronormative, white Christian patriarchal belief systems that have shaped America’s justice system from its very founding, that I believe, most disturbs the equanimity of the critic, what gives him pause in his liberal, tolerant worldview. This “blurring” of spiritual traditions is evident to him in the fact that the statue on the rooftop instead of having feet firmly planted in our earthly firmament, instead arises, feet-less, all golden-bathed 8 feet of it, out of a lotus flower, thus evidencing some sort of pantheistic deity, evoking a “nature-spirituality” that turns the human female form into a “magical hybrid plant-animal.” Douthat’s discomfort, fear even, at this queering of the (white) female form, named “NOW” by the artist (which evokes both the need for abortion-rights female lawgivers such as the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg in our current moment when such rights are being repealed, as well as a sly reference to NOW, the premier US women’s rights organization), mounts as he describes the statue it is in dialogue with, erected in the middle of Madison Square Park across from the courthouse. This one, an 18- foot tall female form wearing a hooped skirt and stylized horns for hair with roots instead of feet, is named “WITNESS” and together the two sculptures make up “HAVAH: to breathe, air, life.”
The word Havah, evoking the Arabic and Hebrew name for Eve, in Douthat’s view “mak[es] a feminist claim on the monotheistic tradition”; such a claim might even be acceptable to the liberal-minded side of Douthat, but the fact that the statue like the one atop the courthouse is evocative of a nature-animal-human triptych, is more than our critic, at bottom a Christian conservative (as he himself tells us), can bear. He bemoans, “finally it’s very hard not to see the braids-as-horns, the tendrils that look a bit tentacle-like, as an appropriation of Christian images of the demonic in a statue that stands against the politics of conservative Christianity.” His veiled critique of Shahzia Sikander’s “anti-Christian” statuary work is more clearly spelled out in the Christian Broadcasting Network’s statement,
The Bible tells us when Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world. And that's not exactly something Christians celebrate, much less honor with a statue.
Thus, whatever door to “reasonable spiritual experimentation” is opened up by such allegorical figures as Sikander’s statues, the fact that, in the final analysis, such “symbols… invoke multiple spiritualities at once,” causes grave disturbance in the unipolar, eschatological world view of Douthat, as clearly indicated in the warning with which he concludes his essay, “when the door is open, be very, very careful about what you invite in.”
Be. Very. Careful. What. You. Invite. In. Wow! In an age of increasing xenophobia, Islamophobia, and backlash against civil liberties, this is quite a statement to make.
It is Mr. Douthat who needs to be very careful about what he says and by so saying, unleashes. The countless Instagram and twitter posts equating Shahzia Sikander’s work with that of the Devil following his own writing, is extremely dangerous—inviting “in” to civic discourse, voices of hate inciting violence against the statues, and by extension, their creator. Just one such twitter post reads, “The next Republican mayor of New York should not only remove but publicly destroy this monstrosity” (@michaeljknowles; my emphasis).
While “Havah” is indeed a reference to Eve, the moniker contains multitudes that ought to have been clear to Douthat and other critics of Sikander’s extraordinarily beautiful and thought-provoking work, experiencing which, brings together affect and intellect, a rare feat indeed. As the artist herself has pointed out, she interprets the term ‘havah’ as meaning (in Urdu, her native tongue), “to breathe,” which becomes a performative “to add air, to change a narrative, to add some space;” She clearly wants viewers to ponder that “Eve is also the first law-breaker, right?”
To break the laws of patriarchy, enshrined in a constitution based on notions of white male Christian supremacy in this nation since its founding, is clearly a bitter pill to swallow for too many, including it seems, Mr Douthat. One has only to think of the brilliant enfolding of the act of breathing into Sikander’s carefully chosen name for her Garden delight, to apprehend its fundamental importance as an act we share with all of God’s creatures on this earth, something this plant-woman embodies instinctively down to her floating roots. To add air, to change the narrative of laws that are unjust, to move, and create space for “other” realities than those seen through the heteronormative lens of dominant power, is the remit of “Havah: to breathe, air, life.” How, in this choice of title for her sculptural installation, can one fail to realize the depth of her political vision and solidarity with the first immigrants to these shores, Africans uprooted from their ancestral lands and sold into slavery to the Christian White Man? Sikander’s feminism is strongly intersectional and transnational in scope, as the title also invokes solidarity with Iranian women protesting for rights for “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Her reference “to breathe” is simultaneously evocative of the “Let Me Breathe” movement for justice galvanized by the death-by- asphyxiation of George Floyd at the hands of racist cops, a gesture Douthat totally fails to notice.
If “NOW” can be seen as an homage to a (reconstituted) white woman (sporting RBJ’s iconic lace collar) as she breaks the legal glass ceiling by passing laws that safeguard(ed) women’s bodily autonomy and the constitutional right to choose, “WITNESS” asks us to pay attention to injustices and oppressions enacted on bodies of color: black, brown, Asian male, female, non-binary, trans. It asks us to bear witness queerly, like the female statue in the park, who even as she is embodied in her womanly form, is a shape-shifter, only part woman, mostly plant, all goddess. This female body that we witness, in dialogue with the golden woman atop the courthouse, “exists in excess of gender itself: it sprouts limbs and lotuses, it endlessly repeats, doubles, multiplies and circles back on itself.” Her curved horns where we might expect to see hair when wearing our straight normative lenses, are not a reference to Satan (as her Christian critics aver)—but rather, viewed through a queer gaze, appear as multivalent references braiding together brown and black women who have been erased from masculinist art and world histories. They recall earlier hair representations in the artist’s oeuvre, including especially her creative depictions of gopi hair in motion.
Traditionally seen as handmaidens to the Hindu God Krishna, gopis in her painting and its animation SpiNN, which is Sikander’s reimagining of Mughal court manuscript paintings set in a durbar hall/formal meeting space traditionally reserved for displays of Muslim male kingly authority, infiltrate this masculine-coded space in masses of shape-shifting black hair, to disrupt the rigid frames of patriarchy and sovereignty across religious traditions and colonial histories. The imposing braided horns also bring to mind magnificently braided hairstyles worn by African women, in their ornateness often signifying a decolonial impulse.
Anne Bailey tells us how Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, captured in over 1000 photographs, “a wave of powerful and proud hairstyles that swept across Nigeria in the years following its independence from Britain in 1960.” Similar hairstyles can be seen in the imposing Benin statues from centuries ago, and as a website article tracing women’s hairstyles and their significance across Africa and its diaspora informs us, the depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara, and have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C. There are also Native American paintings as far back as 1,000 years showing cornrows as a hairstyle. This tradition of female styling in cornrows has remained popular throughout Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa and West Africa.
According to an instagram post by @KnowYourCaribbean, rice was hidden in braids in order to help slaves survive the middle passage. The writer shares that “many African women braided rice or seeds into their hair before journeying the Middle Passage, on their way to enslavement or braided it into their children’s hair before separation, so that they could eat.
That Sikander is deeply familiar with these palimpsestic her-stories of the symbols she chooses to deploy in her work with great deliberation as a result of lifelong research and empathy for those whom justice has not served, is manifested through the themes that resonate across, and shape, the body of her work over the past quarter century. And, as she herself has stated many times, these female avatars stand witness to women’s survival, resilience and courage across cultures, races, regions, temporalities.
The Art Newspaper points out, for instance, how “Sikander’s radiant figures” sport hair that is “braided like spiraling ram's horns and strikes an arms-akimbo power stance.” Spiralling ram’s horns (a recurrent feature across her oeuvre)–are “an ancient symbol, appearing in many cultures throughout history. In some cultures, the ram symbolizes strength and power while it represents fertility and abundance in others." Sikander has stated many times, that her statues represent the strength and resilience of women, where male power is translated into female power via fertility which is the source of all creativity—including the artist’s own.
The braids are thus a reminder of the creativity of the women brought to these shores as slaves, cleverly braiding rice seeds into their daughters’ hair, to resist the devilish power of the slavers. The braids also bring into a shared space of resistance, women gopis of the South Asian diaspora such as Sikander herself, banding together with each other to create a swarming mass of feminist empowerment and visibility in spaces from where they have been excluded for too long.
In the same way, her statues and their horned braids recall her evolving painting from the early 2000s, PLEASURE PILLARS, where the central figure is a self-portrait with ram’s horns that joins together female bodies fragmented by the weight of masculinist histories embedded in colonialist and imperialist erasures of the Other.
Her statuesque sculptures like upright, confident Amazons, which as the Art Newspaper reviewer noted, strike “an arms-akimbo power stance,” can be seen also as an homage to the Black Power Salute of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, when an intersectional struggle for blacks’ and women’s rights ushered in sweeping progressive changes to the legislature. That era’s shape-shifting energy, when alliances were forged across differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, can be seen to inform this sculptural endeavor of Sikander’s, so badly needed NOW in our times of back-sliding into regressive norms here, there, everywhere. Surely it is no coincidence that this exhibition on the theme of justice, opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 16, 2023? A pursuit of justice requires that we constantly re-examine and challenge the stories that have been passed down through the colonial and imperial archives about race and gender and their representation in public space, or rather, lack thereof.
Thus, this work also draws attention to the need for south Asian female representation in the city that the artist has called home for a majority of her life, where the bulk of her oeuvre has taken shape, but where it took over 20 years of creating globally recognized and award-winning art before she received a solo exhibition (at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2021). Justice is representation, acknowledgment, respect for all denizens, no matter their race, ethnicity, color, sexuality, religion, country of origin or gender.
The artist, who claims she “opted not to base the figures on recognisable historic women, but rather a broader representation of the feminine bridging race and culture (my italics)” shows us a way forward into a better, more just future for all, based on a full reckoning of the past that is surely the need of the hour.