Shahzia’s artwork atop a courthouse.—shahzia.sikander / Instagram
Shahzia’s artwork atop a courthouse.—shahzia.sikander / Instagram

WASHINGTON: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation,” Pakistani Ame­rican artist Shahzia Sikander used these “never fading words” by Coretta Scott King to announce the inauguration of her work, Havah.

Coretta King, an American author, activist, and civil rights leader married to Martin Luther King Jr from 1953 to his assassination, belonged to a race that has been struggling for freedom for generations, in the “land of the free.” Even on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, African Americans, and their supporters were marching across America to protest the lynching of a young black man in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, aged 39.

The exhibition’s title “Havah … to breathe, air, life” also describes the artist’s background who comes from a place where this struggle for freedom has been going on for generations too, without achieving much.

In Shahzia Sikander’s native land, the absence of fresh air is felt so strongly that, according to a poet, people “pray for the scorching summer wind to end this suffocation.”

One of the articles on her exhibition describes her works as “explorations into sculpture and video that reconsiders traditional representations of power.”

Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times’ culture reporter, notes that the exhibition includes a “glimmering female sculpture channeling Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” which has been installed atop an influential New York appellate courthouse. The artist told him that “it was an urgent form of resistance” as female reproductive rights were under siege.”

Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020.

This major multimedia exhibition on the theme of justice opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 16, at New York’s Madison Square Park and at the adjacent Courthouse of the Appellate Division and will continue till June 4, 2023, before traveling to Houston.

The one atop the Courthouse is the first female figure to adorn one of its ten plinths. A recent video animation by Shahzia Sikander, visually explaining the exhibition’s distinct elements, can also be viewed in the park.

The exhibition was co-commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy and Public Art of the University of Houston System (Public Art UHS).

The US media described it as “a culmination of Shahzia Sikander’s exploration of female representation in monuments,” which marks her first major, site-specific outdoor exhibition in sculptural form.

“Shahzia’s augmented reality experience presents an apparition of the artist’s sculpture stalled on the courthouse rooftop at 27 Madison Avenue. Becoming a prominent presence within ethereal lotus petals, the figure commands our visual space, affirming goals for progress for women and justice,” says an Instagram post by Arooj Aftab.

Recently, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation announced it has awarded the Pollock Prize for Creativity to artist Shahzia Sikander.

The $50,000 award honors her exhibition. The annual award is given to an artist whose “work embodies high creative standards and has a substantial impact on individuals and society,” the foundation said.

Shahzia Sikander, born 1969, in Lahore, works across a variety of mediums, including drawing, painting, printmaking, animation, installation, performance and video. She studied at the National College of Arts, Lahore, and Rhode Island School of Design in the US.

Her official website describes Shahzia Sikander as “a citizen of the world” who, over the course of three decades, “has developed a multi-media practice that embraces the production of compelling objects that practically and theoretically transcend borders.”

The website points out that her meaningful artistic and social collaborations probe contested histories of colonialism, mechanisms of power, notions of language and migration.

She is internationally renowned for “a pioneering practice that takes classical Indo-Persian miniature painting as its point of departure, and inflects it with contemporary South Asian, American, Feminist and Muslim perspectives.”

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2023

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