Anti-Abortion Group Calls for Removal of ‘Satanic’ Shahzia Sikander Sculpture in Texas

A Shahzia Sikander sculpture has become the subject of controversy after a powerful anti-abortion group claimed that the work promotes “satanic” imagery.

The sculpture, which was acclaimed by critics when it appeared in New York’s Madison Square Park last year, was intended to explore the relationship between femininity and power.

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Titled Witness (2023), the work features a female figure who levitates above the ground, her arms and legs dissolving into root-like forms. She dons the armature of a hoop skirt that contains mosaics depicting plants. She dons a lacy collar in allusion to similar ones worn by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice.

Sikander has said that the work, which debuted alongside another sculpture, was, in part, a response to the paring back of abortion rights in the United States, including the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Amid those developments, Sikander wrote in a statement accompanying the work, came a dismissal of “the indefatigable spirit of 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.”

Now, the work is to appear next week at the University of Houston in Texas. But some conservative groups have called for the work not to go on view at all, calling its imagery abject.

Earlier this month, Texas Right to Life, a self-described “pro-life” organization that has been credited with helping to undo Roe v. Wade, claimed the work enlists “satanic imagery to honor abortion and memorialize the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” although it did not describe what that imagery was. (Sikander’s artist statement about the work contains no mention of satanism.)

“Disobedience to God certainly should not be esteemed by society, much less lauded with a statue,” the group wrote. “On the contrary, art should reflect truth, goodness, and beauty: three timeless values that reveal the nature of God. Art cannot have beauty without truth. Art cannot have truth without goodness. A statue honoring child sacrifice has no place in Texas.”

The Sikander work has previously been a subject of controversy in conservative media, with Fox News having run a report on X users calling the sculpture “demonic” in 2023.

Sikander did not respond to request for comment for this article.

Axios reported that Texas Right to Life had been referring to a booklet about Witness published by the Madison Square Park Conservancy that mentioned Abrahamic religions, which refer to horned beings.

“The trope is not the artist’s alone: horned gods and goddesses abound in world religions, from ancient Egypt and Greece to other parts and eras of Africa and Europe. In the Abrahamic faiths the horned beast is associated with forces of evil, chaos, and destruction—the devil himself,” critic Aruna D’Souza writes in the booklet.

D’Souza continues, “But again, Sikander reveals to us what’s really at stake in such conceptions. In the biblical story of creation, Satan and Eve are intertwined the way a snake wraps around a tree limb; woman is the vehicle for iniquity, the temptress, the instrument of evil. Sikander takes this idea, one that runs through so many cultures and epochs and philosophies—of woman as a threat, as an embodiment of unspeakable desire, as taint —and turns negativity into power. Her Eve, her Havah, sports her horns like a crown, as a point of pride. She understands the endless projections onto herself as her strength.”

In an FAQ about Witness, the University of Houston acknowledged that the work might be “offensive to some people,” and said, “The sculpture has braids shaped like ram horns, representing the unification of disparate strands. 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.”

The Sikander sculpture is the latest in a series of artworks that have been labeled “satanic” by right-wing groups. Others include performances by Marina Abramović and a Simone Leigh sculpture that temporarily appeared in the former site of a Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans.


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