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Between good and evil: Campus divided over new public art installation

The temporary installation Havah… to Breathe, Air, Life  has caused UH students and alumni to call for its removal. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The campus’s newest temporary art exhibit, Havah… to Breathe, Air, Life has sparked controversy among the UH community. The uproar ranges from some who believe the work is inspired by “satanic” themes, to others who have simply objected to it’s placement in one of UH’s few green spaces. 

The sculpture is a co-commission between the Public Art University of Houston System and Madison Square Park Conservancy, and is “a grand allegorical female figure that allows for multiple meanings and possibilities,” according to UHS Public Art.

While the opening ceremony of Shahzia Sikander’s exhibit isn’t until Feb. 28, that hasn’t prevented students and alumni from expressing their disdain toward the artwork.

“I absolutely despise it,” said global hospitality leadership junior Aaron Stollings. “I want it to be removed immediately. It’s satanic, and it represents evil values.”

Some alumni have also expressed similar opinions, adding the belief that the artwork is a dedication to “child sacrifice.”

“It is a Satanic monument to child sacrifice and it should be burned with fire,” said alumnus Joe Wilson. “Any medical professional will tell you of the pain and suffering a fetus experiences when he or she is ‘terminated.’ Don’t take my word for it, look it up. Hedonism will destroy this country.”

In a published Q&A about the collection, the University of Houston System Public Art Committee discussed how it came to the decision of displaying Sikander’s work, saying it “gives representation to diversity of the University and the city.”

The committee also elaborated on how elements in Sikander’s exhibit are a testament to the glass ceiling, “resilience of the feminine” and the ability to have roots across multiple cultures.

“I like to believe that the function of art is to allow multiple meanings and possibilities, to open up space for a more just world,” Sikander said. “How we experience art, how we respond to it and how we interpret it is an open-ended premise.”

Despite the uproar, the sentiment behind the piece resonated with some students. For anthropology sophomore Emme Tomasello, the controversial nature of the sculpture is a testament to its allure.

“I think the statue is fine—rather, I think it should stay up even more after seeing everyone complaining about it,” Tomasello said. “Art should spark conversation, and as a secular university, having satanic imagery is simply not enough of a reason to tear it down.”

Others, like geological and earth sciences student Noah Monreal, are in support of the sculpture and criticized the assumptions some students have made, but also dislike the statue being placed near the Cullen fountains.

“I also believe that those who say the statue is demonic clearly haven’t done their research on the piece and the artist,” Monreal said. “My only critique is that the location could’ve been nicer, I liked sitting in that patch of grass and listening to the water.”

As a temporary installation, the exhibit is set to be removed Oct. 31. While the University has not made any official comment in response to the backlash, the Student Government Association introduced a resolution at its most recent meeting calling for the removal of the sculpture. 

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  • Have never understood how it can be a plank of the new feminism to declare that the only way a woman could “break the glass ceiling” alluded to by this art- or rise to the top of her profession is if she terminates her baby and ends her pregnancy… . It seems to me that human rights, and rights for women, should begin at her beginning and bear protection til her natural end. That today, we have such incredible views both microscopic and macro, inside a uterus, inside our cells, and mapping the fabulous female body and all of its creative genius and procreative power, that if the truth of (free!) fertility awareness and the body were shared in lieu of the medical model of the pill and the illusory promise of “consent” wherein individuals are saying yes to both the act and the consequences (unless rape, which is whole conversation that must be explored: how “abortion rights” have given power to rapists and abortion clinics typically enable that devastating act to fester in darkness) – then humans would be happier, healthier, and more connected, quite possibly with more respect for each other and themselves, instead of being shackled to the pill, depressed and risking stroke and cancer, loss of libido, and thinking that when an unintended pregnancy occurs, is preferable to kill the baby rather than deliver into the hands of couple eager to adopt. Why not instead give women (and life) the fullness of truth and respect? An unintended pregnancy is not merely the products of conception, but rather a new human being. Women who have a rigorous understanding of their own fertility and bodies, can more authentically choose when they want to have sex and if they want to parent, and they can do either without pills or destroying a life. The shame is that Sikander’s art could have shown that vision instead of yet another old woman declaring that abortion is the tool for shattering the glass.

  • As a proud alum I am disgusted that UH is going to allow this “so called” sculpture to be displayed. I love UH, but this is going too far and I will no longer be sending any donations, if this stands. Not that I am some sort of rich donor, but I don’t send my hard earned money to organizations that are totally against my beliefs. The youth in our country has gone so far down the drain, that I don’t see how half of them will be able to support themselves. Let’s get back to education so the students can get a good job and get out of the social experiment.

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