Shahzia Sikander’s ‘Havah… to breathe, air, life’ graces Madison Square Park

Judah Duke, Business Editor

Two golden figures have captured the fascination of curious onlookers and sculptural savants alike since their debut on Jan. 17 in Madison Square Park.

The sculptures, part of Pakistani American Shahzia Sikander’s “Havah…to breathe, air, life,” allegorically suggest new values worth memorializing while challenging past codes of tribute. The contemporary iconography is rooted in feminist, ecological and Muslim perspectives, lending to the display multilateral appeal and an air of divinity.

The installations are temporary but will remain until June 4.

“Havah” means “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu, and “Eve” in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages. Its verb form in Hebrew can also be translated as “to be,” “to become” or “to exist.”

The title calls attention to Sikander’s Pakistani heritage, the aesthetics of symbolic femininity and the reminders of natural existence that the project manifests.

The larger of the two, standing in the corner field of Madison Square Park, is named “Witness.”

“Witness” is supported by the steel skeleton of a hoop skirt, on which tiled mosaic pieces in the shapes of ribbons color the statue with depictions of flowers and greenery.

The surface of the woman’s body is slick. It lacks notable ornamentation aside from the spindly roots that replace its arms and feet, a decorative jabot collar, two thick spiraled locks of hair and an expression of both imposing yet unbothered resoluteness.

A smaller sibling statue to “Witness” named “NOW” adorns the eastern corner of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, located on East 25th Street across from the park.

Its position is key: it shares the space at the top row with statues of Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius and many other men symbolizing concepts such as wisdom or justice. It is “NOW,” a womanly symbol, that inhabits the same space of memorialization that the men do.

“Through luminous allegorical female figures, Shahzia’s project asks who is historically represented and who wields power in the justice system, both symbolically and actually,” the chief curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy Brooke Kamin Rapaport said.

The installations follow years of public discussion and action on the male-dominated monuments and sculptures populating the national landscape. Divisive memorials all over the country have been removed. American society reevaluated the values that commemorations of Confederate figures, slave owners and history’s other problematic men brazenly relay and reject.

The two sculptures, constructed from painted high-density foam, exhibit the feminist-guided iconography that Sikander has frequently cultivated throughout her artistic career.

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to much of the project’s more arresting aspects. A video animation and an augmented reality experience also accompany “Witness,” and can be accessed by scanning a Snapcode.

Baruch College’s Macaulay Honors program provided a guided tour of Sikander’s “Havah…to breathe, air, life” in Madison Square Park on Thursday, March 2, that was led by one of the park’s curators.