Frenzied commuters in New York’s Flatiron district have been stopped in their tracks in recent days by an unlikely apparition near Moses, Confucius and Zoroaster. Standing atop the grandiose state courthouse is a shimmering, golden eight-foot female sculpture, emerging from a pink lotus flower and wearing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s signature lace collar.
Staring regally ahead with hair braided like spiraling horns, the sculpture, installed as part of an exhibition that opened last week, is the first female to adorn one of the courthouse’s 10 plinths, dominated for more than a century by now weathered statues representing great lawgivers throughout the ages — all of them men.
Shahzia Sikander, 53, the paradigm-busting Pakistani American artist behind the work, said the sculpture was part of an urgent and necessary cultural reckoning underway as New York, along with cities across the world, reconsiders traditional representations of power in public spaces and recasts civic structures to better reflect 21st-century social mores.
“She is a fierce woman and a form of resistance in a space that has historically been dominated by patriarchal representation,” said Sikander, who previously served on the New York Mayoral Advisory Commission of City Art, Monuments and Markers. She said the work was called “NOW” because it was needed “now,” at a time when women’s reproductive rights were under siege after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the constitutional right to abortion.
“With Ginsburg’s death and the reversal of Roe, there was a setback to women’s constitutional progress,” she wrote in her artist’s statement.
With an acrimonious culture war over abortion buffeting the country, some lawyers expressed surprise at seeing an artwork, partially framed as a response to the overturning of a Supreme Court decision, atop a state courthouse. But New York has long been at the forefront of the drive for abortion access and New York has moved to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.
It is not the first time this court, the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, of the New York State Supreme Court, has changed the lineup of figures presiding over its rooftop. In 1955 the court removed a turn-of-the-century, eight-foot-tall marble statue of the Prophet Muhammad when the Pakistani, Egyptian and Indonesian Embassies asked the State Department to intervene; many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the prophet.
To compensate for the visual gap left at the commanding southwest corner of the building, seven statues were shifted one pedestal westward, leaving Zoroaster in the place of Muhammad. The easternmost pedestal, once occupied by Justinian, was left vacant. That is where Sikander’s sculpture presides.
The Lahore-born Sikander, whose work has been displayed at the Whitney Biennial and who made her name reimagining the art of Indo-Persian miniature painting from a feminist, post-colonial perspective, was at pains to emphasize that Muhammad’s removal and her installation were completely unrelated. “My figure is not replacing anyone or canceling anyone,” she said.
Much as Justice Ginsburg wore her lace collar to recast a historically male uniform and proudly reclaim it for her gender, Sikander said her stylized sculpture was aimed at feminizing a building that was commissioned in 1896. Writing in The New Yorker in 1928, the architect and author George S. Chappell called the rooftop ring of male figures atop the building a “ridiculous adornment of mortuary statuary.”
The aesthetic merits of the courthouse’s sumptuous Beaux-Arts-style architecture aside, the building’s symbolism has outsize importance in New York’s civic and legal identity and beyond: The court hears appeals from all the trial courts in Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as some of the most important appeals in the country.
Justice Dianne T. Renwick, the first Black female justice at the Appellate Division, First Department, who chairs a committee examining issues of diversity, said that, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the court had undertaken a long overdue effort to address gender and racial bias since the courthouse had been built, at a time when women and people of color were erased and overlooked.
While the courthouse has allegorical female figures, she said that no figures of female judges or justices had previously existed outside or inside the courthouse, while only one woman — Betty Weinberg Ellerin, a trailblazing judge and the first woman to be appointed presiding justice of the Appellate Division — was named on the courtroom’s ornate stained-glass ceiling dome on a section honoring those who had held that position.
She lamented that another area of the dome citing historic judges and lawyers in American history included the name Roger Brooke Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the racist Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans were not and could not be citizens. She said she and other justices wanted his name removed from the dome and that talks were underway to expunge his name, and potentially place it in the court’s library, with an explanatory note describing his role in American history.
“The fact that his name is in this dome is outrageous,” Justice Renwick said. “We don’t want to erase the art, we wanted to contextualize it,” she added.
Amid an international debate over the need to diversify public spaces, cities like Bristol, England, Richmond, Va., and Antwerp, Belgium, among others, have been removing monuments honoring historic figures who advocated slavery or held racist views.
While many cultural observers see this exercise as essential, it has, at times, pitted modernizers against some conservationists and scholars who argue that public spaces, be they streets, statues or houses of law, should be preserved as historical records, no matter how egregious or anachronistic their iconography. (The exterior of the courthouse was designated a New York City landmark in 1966.)
The “NOW” sculpture is in dialogue with another 18-foot sculpture of a powerful woman by Sikander, called “Witness,” in adjacent Madison Square Park. Sikander said that sculpture wore a hoop skirt inspired by the stained-glass dome of the courthouse, symbolizing the need to “break the legal glass ceiling.” Written on the sculpture is the word “havah,” which she said means “air” or “atmosphere” in Urdu and “Eve” in Arabic and Hebrew.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the chief curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, called the works — co-commissioned by the conservancy and Public Art of the University of Houston System — “anti-monuments.”
The movement to alter public spaces is not new, though it has gained urgency in recent years.
Claire Bishop, a British critic and professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, observed that Sikander’s sculptures were part of a decades-long movement in which artists have been doggedly intervening in monumental statuary and official sites or buildings.
In 2018, a reconstruction by the American artist Michael Rakowitz of an ancient statue of a winged bull destroyed by ISIS was installed on a sculpture platform known as the Fourth Plinth, in Trafalgar Square in London. One year later, in its annual commission to enliven the storied Fifth Avenue facade of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the museum installed four sculptures by Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-born American visual artist, depicting seated women, dressed in coiled garments with discs placed on different parts of their heads.
“Maybe she can help channel us back to reinstating Roe v. Wade,” Bishop added, referring to the “NOW” sculpture, which she called “a magical hybrid plant-animal” that was emblematic of the need for “more radiant female energy on the facade of every courthouse.”
Sikander said the placement of her luminous female sculpture in such a monumental public space as a courthouse had added poignancy for her since, she said, her work had been censored in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks amid a xenophobic backlash against Muslim Americans.
She recalled that in 2001 she decided to withdraw from an important commission after an image she made of a hovering female avatar holding a sword and meant to suggest female resilience and potency was wrongly misinterpreted as conveying violence.
“After being censored, it is poetic justice that my work is now on top of a State Supreme Court building,” she said.
Justice Renwick said that seeing Sikander’s gleaming, golden sculpture when entering the courthouse amid the monochromatic ancient male lawgivers gave her a feeling of contentment and pride. “We finally have a figure who fully embraces women,” she said. “I cannot come into the courthouse without stepping back and looking up and smiling.”
Her smile may disappear when the patriarchy atop the courthouse returns to prominence after the sculpture channeling the “Notorious R.B.G.” is removed in June, when both of Sikander’s works travel to Houston.