Op-Ed: New sculpture is a powerful depiction of femininity

Havah…to breathe, air, life by Shahzia Sikander | Photo courtesy of Yasuno Matsui/Madison Square Park Conservancy

I run Madison Square Park, the New York City public space where Shahzia Sikander’s sculpture “Witness” was first exhibited last year. I’m not an art expert – my background is in urban land use law, and my job is to fundraise and manage the park. But it’s been a bonus of my job to meet the artists we commission to create works inspired by the park, and to watch and listen to how the public responds to their art.

Madison Square Park was designated as a public space in the city’s first charter in 1686; it became a park in 1857. Some of its grand trees go back to that time, and when I first saw Sikander’s 18-foot tall female figure, whose legs and arms are represented by webs of roots to symbolize the rootedness of women, I felt the influence of those trees on her work.

Her hair is braided in the shape of ram horns, which, like trees, are a powerful symbol of strength. The colorful mosaic across her hoop skirt spells out “havah,” which means “air” or “Eve.” I saw this piece as a tribute to the resilience and strength of women.

Over 60,000 people from all over the world visit our park every day, and our team continuously gets feedback on everything from the menu at the original Shake Shack (yes, Shake Shack started in our small park) to the cleaning schedule of the dog run. Not surprisingly, our rotating public art program generates a lot of discussion, and Sikander’s piece was no exception.

There were some who saw it as a symbol of woman as mother and bearer of life, responding to the roots from which she grows and reading “havah” as her name, Eve. Others saw it as modern woman rising out of the constraints of the traditional hoop skirt of past centuries. Despite different readings, almost everyone who saw the exhibition in the park and commented on it to us perceived Witness as a positive, empowering piece that celebrates women.

Of course, interpretation of art – particularly public art – is in the eye of the beholder, and once it is released into the world, the artist’s intent is muted by the opinions of everyone who experiences it. That’s the risk every artist takes. But what I want to assure the University of Houston community is that this piece was not born out of dark or satanic thoughts.

While some (most of whom never actually saw it) have imposed this interpretation on the piece, the overwhelming response to Witness in its first home in Madison Square Park – and not just from New Yorkers but from people from all over America and the world – was that it honored women in a beautiful way, through traditional symbols of strength.

I hope when all is said and done, it will have a similar reception here.

Holly Leicht is the Executive Director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy. She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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