Feb 21, 2024 - News

"Satanic" sculpture coming to Houston

Shahzia Sikander's sculpture "Witness," a golden woman with spiraling horns and a hoop skirt adorned with mosaic tiles

Shahzia Sikander's 13-foot-tall "Witness" statue in New York City in 2023. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

A sculpture deemed "satanic" by one of Texas' largest anti-abortion lobbies will soon be on display at the University of Houston.

Why it matters: Outcries from conservatives who say the piece is riddled with "satanic imagery to honor abortion" are following the art from New York to Houston.

Catch up fast: Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander's 13-foot-tall "Witness" statue debuted in New York City's Madison Square Park in 2023.

Driving the news: Texas Right to Life, a Christian anti-abortion nonprofit, plans to protest the opening reception for the statue "peacefully and prayerfully" and is asking the university to remove the display.

Details: "Witness" was recently moved from Madison Square Park to the University of Houston, where it is undergoing assembly and will be on display at the Cullen Family Plaza from Feb. 28 to Oct. 31.

  • Sikander spent the mid-1990s as a fellow in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's Core Residency Program, when she was also heavily involved in Third Ward's Project Row Houses.
  • She will return to Houston on Feb. 28 for an artist talk during the opening reception.

What they're saying: Texas Right to Life points to the statue's headpiece, citing a document on the Madison Square Park Conservancy website that says, "In the Abrahamic faiths the horned beast is associated with forces of evil, chaos, and destruction — the devil himself."

  • "This piece celebrates Satan's deceit," said Kimberlyn Schwartz, spokesperson for the group.

The other side: When asked if the University of Houston had a response to Texas Right to Life, a university spokesperson sent an FAQ about the art piece in which the university acknowledged the statue may be "offensive to some people."

  • "The sculpture has braids shaped like ram horns, representing the unification of disparate strands," the FAQ reads.
  • "Ram horns have significance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as Central and South Asian beliefs, often associated with power and valor."
  • "The artist has said the braids link to one of her paintings that represents the courage, fluidity and resilience of the feminine."

Of note: Sikander declined to comment for this story.

The big picture: Abortion restrictions have become increasingly strict since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, including in Texas where the state banned abortions even in emergency situations.

  • Only 13% of Republicans saying they support a complete ban on abortion when the woman's health is in danger, 19% if the woman became pregnant as a result of rape, and 27% if there is a strong chance of a serious birth defect, per polling conducted last year by the University of Texas.
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