Statues of nine men from history and religion perch atop the courthouse near Madison Square Park. Now, for the first time, the representation of a woman has joined their noble rooftop plinths.
“Havah…to breathe, air, life,” an exhibition by artist Shahzia Sikander focusing on themes of justice, has brought stunning golden sculptures to Madison Square Park and the nearby courthouse at 27 Madison Avenue (officially called the Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York). The statues, unveiled this week, will be on view through June 4.
Inside Madison Square Park sits “Witness,” a monumental female figure measuring 18 feet tall and wearing a hoop skirt inspired by the courtroom’s stained-glass ceiling dome. The figure’s twisted arms and legs suggest tree roots, referencing what the artist has described as the “self-rootedness of the female form; it can carry its roots wherever it goes.” You can even use your smartphone to bring the figure to life through AR technology.
Adorning the nearby courthouse, “NOW,” an 8-foot-tall female figure resembles the park sculpture, but a lotus symbolizing wisdom replaces the hoop skirt. Her horns indicate sovereignty and autonomy. A delicate collar nods to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often wore detailed collars with her traditional black robe. The statue—the only woman represented—sits next to figures including Confucius, Justinian, Lycurgus, Moses and Zoroaster. At last, this work puts a female figure on a level plane with the traditional, patriarchal depictions of justice and power.
“The image of justice as a woman has been present for centuries, but women only gained juridical voice in the last one. Despite years of women’s struggle for legal socio-economic and political equality, gender bias still continues to create barriers for many women, whether it is health and education rights, equal economic opportunities, gender-based violence and race or class discrimination,” Sikander said in her artist statement. “The essential role of visual representations of justice and ethics in judiciary spaces is one of many aspects in the relationship between art and the law, or how the image and law relate to one another.”
The installation is part of efforts by the Court of the Appellate Division to add new artworks from diverse contemporary artists to the courthouse, bringing modern perspectives on justice to the building’s existing artworks.
“As we seek to broaden the visibility of less-often-recognized contributors to law and justice in our society, what better way to start than with the figure of a woman? Women are foundations of our society. Throughout history we have been champions for freedom, equal rights and justice,” said Justice Dianne T. Renwick, chair of the court’s committee leading the effort. “For the first time since the Court’s historic opening well over 100 years ago, the figure of a woman finally and rightfully will stand on equal footing with the male philosophers and lawgivers who line the other pedestals. This type of collaboration is unprecedented in New York State and we are very excited about this endeavor and the possibilities for other courts.”
…the figure of a woman finally and rightfully will stand on equal footing with the male philosophers and lawgivers who line the other pedestals.
In addition to the sculptures, don’t miss the video component called “Reckoning,” which explores the artwork in relationship to depictions of a flowering landscape.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and Martin Friedman chief curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, describes the sculptures as “luminous allegorical female figures.” “Havah,” she explained, means “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew.
Sikander, who was born in Pakistan and now lives in New York City, is credited for renewing international interest in the Indo-Persian miniature form and for innovating a feminist neo-miniature movement. She’s a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and she received the United States Medal of Arts in 2012.
…the enduring power lies with the people who step into and remain in the fight for equality.
“The recent focus on reproductive rights in the U.S. after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion in the US, comes to the forefront,” Sikander said in a statement. “In the process, it is the dismissal, too, of the indefatigable spirit of the women, who have been collectively fighting for their right to their own bodies over generations. However, the enduring power lies with the people who step into and remain in the fight for equality. That spirit and grit is what I want to capture in both the sculptures.”
You can hear more from the artist, along with human rights attorney Becca Heller and Justice Judith Gische during “Lifting Women and Justice,” an event on February 6. The speakers will focus on the state of justice today, how the legal field has advanced or failed women in juridical positions, and how works of art guide transformation on central questions upholding entrenched systems. Register here.
“Havah…to breathe, air, life” is co-commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy and Public Art of the University of Houston System (Public Art UHS). The exhibition is on view in New York through June 4, 2023, and will then travel to Houston.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.