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Statue honoring women and justice vandalized at University of Houston

University of Houston officials said Tuesday that a vandal attacked Shahzia Sikander’s “Witness” sculpture and decapitated the work, which is a monument to women and justice that sits on campus. Footage of the destruction, which occurred early Monday morning amid severe weather from Hurricane Beryl and power outages, was obtained by campus police, officials told the artist.

Sikander, a Pakistani-American artist, often creates works that explore issues of politics, language, and empire. The damaged statue was one of the artist’s first major public sculptures in a career spanning nearly 30 years.

“We were disappointed to learn that the statue was damaged early Monday morning when Hurricane Beryl hit Houston. The damage is believed to be intentional,” Kevin Quinn, executive director of media relations for the university, said in a statement to The New York Times. “The University of Houston Police Department is currently investigating.”

On Monday, Rachel G. Mohl, the university’s director of public art programs, wrote to Sikander to warn her of the devastation. She said she was “in total shock and heartbroken that this happened.” In the email, seen by The New York Times, Mohl wrote: “This has shocked all of us, and we are working to repair this incredible and regrettable act as quickly as possible, amid the immense damage caused by the hurricane.”

The 5.5-meter-high statue of a female figure has been under increased surveillance for several months after an anti-abortion group attracted attention to the image after the installation in February, to call it a “satanic” commemoration of abortion and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The university cancelled a lecture by Sikander and an opening celebration. Anti-abortion protesters then held a small protest at the statue. University officials have not said whether the mutilation of the statue was linked to the activists.

“It was a very violent act of hate, and it should be investigated as a crime,” Sikander said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The artist said viewers may have misinterpreted the symbolism behind her artwork, which features horn-like braids, tentacle arms and a lace collar. Her intention wasn’t specifically to comment on abortion or Supreme Court justices, she said, but rather to create a broader message about a woman’s power in the legal system.

The statue was originally commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy in Manhattan, which installed it in the park in January 2023. It was part of a larger response to statues atop a nearby courthouse depicting male lawmakers such as Confucius and Moses. Sikander said at the time that the statue wore a hoop skirt inspired by the courthouse’s stained-glass dome, symbolizing the need to “break the judicial glass ceiling.”

“This was an optimistic, progressive vision of justice,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the conservatory’s artistic director and chief curator. “And now that vision is gone.”

“We expect a thorough investigation to hold those responsible for this violent act to account,” she added, explaining that the decapitated statue remained under a tarp while conservators assessed the damage and explored the possibility of repairs.

University officials say they are still grappling with the devastation wrought by the hurricane as they investigate who attacked the Sikander statue.

Sikander, who has exhibited in museums around the world and recently explored the performing arts of a big show as a side event for the Venice Biennale, said she is still processing what happened to a sculpture that is perhaps her most recognizable work to date. But the artist has decided she wants to leave the damage visible to bystanders.

“I don’t want to ‘fix’ or hide it,” Sikander said. “I want to ‘expose’ it, leave it damaged. Make a new piece, and so much more.”

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