A new visitor has arrived at Madison Square Park. Gleaming, golden and 18 feet high, the mythological-looking figure floats in a metal hoop skirt.
She is a new sculpture made by the renowned Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient best known for reimagining Indo-Persian miniature paintings.
The artwork is called “Witness,” and during a break in its installation last week, Sikander explained why.
“Not only is the sculpture being witnessed by the crowd,” she said, “but the sculpture itself is a witness to the unfolding of history in the present moment.”
The piece is the first large-scale public art sculpture Sikander has made. It’s part of her new multimedia exhibition called “Havah…to breathe, air, life,” which officially opens to the public today. The installation was co-commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy and Public Art University of Houston System.
Hugging the shell of the skirt, and visually moving viewers’ eyes around the figure, is the word havah in oversize Arabic script, its mosaic surface adding flashes of color to the golden artwork. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and chief curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, said the word means “atmosphere” in Urdu, and “eve” in Hebrew, Arabic and other languages.
“Multiple readings of one word, multiple translations — I think that’s really apt for the project, because people will come to this piece and see many different things in the work,” Rapaport said. “That’s always important for outdoor public art, to have many different interpretations of the work on view.”
“Witness” is one part of a constellation of works included in Sikander’s exhibition. An augmented-reality experience lets you use your smartphone to adorn the sculpture with cascading lotus petals. And every afternoon starting at 4:30 p.m., you can walk along the park’s leafy path to find an LED screen showing “Reckoning” (2020), a Sikander animation that looks like pulsating atoms moving through space, from which figures and nature emerge and disappear, evoking ideas of history and memory.
“The nature of this project is that it’s offering many boundaries to kind of merge and melt and disappear,” Sikander said.
Also included in “Havah…to breathe, air, life” is a second, similar sculpture installed on the rooftop of the adjacent Appellate Division Courthouse, first department of the Supreme Court of the state of New York. Like its counterpart in the park, this figure is also glowing and golden. But instead of floating in a skirt, it emerges from a pink lotus flower.
The sculpture, called “NOW,” is the first female figure to join the nine marble statues of historic and religious male legislators, like Confucius, Moses and Zoroaster, occupying the other plinths on the rooftop. The name, Sikander says, not only calls attention to the present moment, but also nods to the National Organization for Women.
“Aspects that are critical for me are basically how society perceives the idea of femininity in conversation with power, and how these social forces shape women’s lives,” said Sikander.
“NOW” is particularly special to Justice Dianne T. Renwick, who not only works in the marble-faced Beaux-Arts courthouse, but also led the effort to commission the statue.
“We’re just so excited that finally women will be on equal footing, if you will, with men,” Renwick said, “because they’ve made so many important contributions to our legal community.”
As an installation crew stacked the head and bodice of “Witness” to the base of the sculpture, Sikander surveyed the silhouettes of buildings surrounding the park. Pointing toward several gilded rooftops, she looked back at her art work.
“Every step, every piece,” she said, “feels like it’s in conversation with the city.”
Havah…to breathe, air, life will be on view through June 4 at Madison Square Park, before traveling to Houston.