SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 26, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):The University of Houston

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

Around February 26, 2024, the University of Houston (UH) canceled the opening celebration for an on-campus exhibition by Shahzia Sikander, a Pakistani-American artist. The cancellation came following pressure from an anti-abortion group.

Sikander’s exhibition, titled “Havah…to breathe, air, life,” highlights two art pieces. The first, “Witness,” is an 18-foot golden sculpture of a female figure with horn-like braids that is seemingly levitating; the sculpture is decorated with mosaics that spell the word “havah” (meaning “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew). The second piece, “Reckoning,” is a video animation of warrior-like figures in a graceful fight. The Public Art University of Houston System (PAUHS) and New York City’s Madison Square Park Conservancy commissioned both works of art in response to the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

In late January, PAUHS announced that both pieces would be on display on UH’s campus from February 28 to October 31. UH planned to launch the exhibit on February 28 with an opening ceremony, featuring a talk by Sikander, during which she would explain her pieces and the process of creating them.

On February 7, Texas Right to Life, a Christian, anti-abortion nonprofit, created a petition calling for people to protest the opening ceremony. The petition argued that the sculpture depicts “satanic imagery.”

A few days later, UH announced that the opening events had been canceled. PAUHS also published a separate document explaining Sikander’s intentions and why it had selected her artwork for a temporary exhibition.

The sculpture was displayed despite the controversy; however the video, which was supposed to be displayed on the wall of a university building next to the sculpture, was not immediately installed. A university spokesperson said that the video would be on display eventually, but did not specify when.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of an on-campus event, in apparent attempt to restrict or prevent nonviolent political expression. University authorities must refrain from acts or decisions which prevent campus events based on concerns about the content of political expression therein. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, punishment aimed at restricting or retaliating against such expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.

Sources:
https://publicartuhs.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Temporary-Art-Exhibit-at-the-University-of-Houston-Final.pdf
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/students/diversity/2024/03/05/u-houston-cancels-event-sculpture-deemed-satanic
https://hyperallergic.com/874193/houston-university-cancels-shahzia-sikander-talk-after-anti-abortion-group-complaints/
https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/shame-on-those-who-silence-artists-responds-shahzia-sikander-moma-ps1-protesters-demand-better-wages-jacob-rothschild-dies-and-more-morning-links-for-february-27-2024-1234697861/
https://pen.org/press-release/pen-america-urges-university-of-houston-to-reschedule-talk-by-artist-shahzia-sikander-and-show-her-film/
https://glasstire.com/2024/03/10/uh-students-video-work-will-reportedly-be-installed/
https://glasstire.com/2024/02/24/protestors-oppose-installation-of-shahzia-sikander-satanic-sculpture-uh-postpones-opening-events/
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2024/02/26/shahzia-sikander-speaks-out-after-her-opening-in-texas-is-cancelled