Confucius, Moses, and King Alfred the Great have a new neighbor atop a New York courthouse in the Flatiron District. A golden sculpture by artist Shahzia Sikander is the first female figure to grace one of the ten rooftop plinths on the courthouse which are otherwise occupied solely by male figures. The sculpture is part of an exhibition titled Havah…to breathe, air, life which includes two larger-than-life sculptures, a video animation, and an augmented reality component.
Sikander’s exhibit in the Flatiron District is her first major, site-specific outdoor exhibition in sculptural form. Havah, means ‘air’ or ‘atmosphere’ in Urdu and ‘Eve’ in Arabic and Hebrew. Sikander drew inspiration for the three pieces in the exhibit, titled NOW, WITNESS, and Reckoning, from her time serving on the New York Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers in 2017. When asked to create a proposal for the courthouse sculpture, Sikander says in her artist statement that she “thought immediately of the courthouse’s proximity to the park and began sketching ideas about a possible relationship between the two locations.”
Both golden figures, NOW and WITNESS, have a stylized and enigmatic feminine form. Instead of anthropomorphic hands and feet, their extremities end in a tangle of root-like curls. “The self-rooted body represents the resilience of women, who can carry their roots wherever they go,” Sikander writes in her artist statement, “The sculptures are temporary and not a fixed point in the landscape, nor symbolic of any fixed ideas or of a specific community. No one person or a human occupant on a plinth can represent multiple histories, ideologies, or experiences.” Both figures also sport their hair in braids shaped to resemble a ram’s horns which are a symbol of strength in Eastern and Western traditions.
The 8-foot-tall plinth sculpture, NOW, is the first female figure to be placed atop the courthouse at 27 Madison. The male figures who occupy the other 9 plinths represent different lawmakers from history and religion. Now stands resolutely at the center of a blossoming lotus flower, a plant that represents many different virtues, among them wisdom and humility.
The placement of this piece, “both physically and symbolically elevates the female figure, putting her on a level plane with the traditionally patriarchal embodiments of justice and power.” It is titled NOW because Sikander wanted to express that “now” is the time when female rights and voices need to be acknowledged, especially amid the overturning of women’s reproductive rights. The courthouse statue is adorned with a collar reminiscent of that worn by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Across from the courthouse at the 25th street and 5th Avenue entrance to Madison Square Park, you’ll findWITNESS, an eighteen-foot-tall sculpture. This massive sculpture is adorned with a voluminous hoop skirt embellished with multicolor mosaics that are inspired by the courtroom’s stained glass dome ceiling. With the help of Snap augmented reality technology, the sculpture is brought to life. Using the Snapchat app, visitors can scan a Snapcode to unlock Apparition (2023), AR experience that features a display of colorful particles and ghostlike images of the courthouse figure. On an adjacent lawn, from 5 PM to 10 PM daily, visitors can view Sikander’s Reckoning (2020), a video animation that unites the multiple elements in the exhibition with lush and vibrant depictions of a flowering landscape.
Sikander’s work prompts us to as “who is historically represented and who wields power in the justice system, both symbolically and actually,” noted Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Artistic Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy. Havah…to breathe, air, life will be on view through June 4, 2023, when it will head to Houston.
Next, check out 5 Eye-Catching Art Installations at Grand Central Madison