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Sculpting Autonomy: The New Idol Demands Sacrifice

From the palm-sized Woman of Willendorf to the colossal Statue of Liberty, female figurative sculpture has always conveyed a culture’s values. NOW, by Shazia Sikhander, which was recently erected upon the roof of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, is no different.

Throughout history, the majority of such figures symbolized the power of female procreativity. Voluptuous Yakshis embellished a Buddhist stupa in India, their melon-like breasts a sign of fecundity. Variations of the goddess Xochiquetzal, a patron of pregnancy, could be found on Aztec temple reliefs. The Yombe of Africa carved wooden pfemba, mother and child figures associated with heralding maternity and healing infertility.

Even when cast as warriors and liberators, nearly all female allegorical figures demonstrate concern for the welfare of others. Athena Parthenos, 40 feet high and composed of scrolled ivory, was a potent personification of wisdom and war in ancient Greece. Her shield and sword marked her as a fearless defender of her citizens. America’s most revered female sculpture also embodied protection of vulnerable people—the tired, the poor, the masses who yearned to breathe free. The Statue of Liberty’s torch of enlightenment and book of law symbolized the equality made possible under a just legal system, serving as a feminine beacon of compassion for millions seeking our shores.

At eight feet, NOW is far smaller than Lady Liberty, but she is also meant to embody the importance of society’s laws. Her spiraling braids and generic facial features replicate another of Sikhander’s statues, Witness. But while Witness wears a hoop skirt referencing a courthouse dome, NOW is naked, save for a legal collar referencing the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the patron saint of a feminism that exalts autonomy above all else. This form of feminism, which has reigned supreme for decades, encourages women to downplay, delay, or outright deny their procreative, lifegiving powers, neutering themselves in the pursuit of a masculine model of sexual freedom and economic success.

If the lace jabot and titular nod to the National Organization of Women weren’t obvious enough, Sikhander’s statement confirms that NOW alludes to abortion as the key to female autonomy: “The recent focus on reproductive rights in the U.S. after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion in the US, comes to the forefront,” she said. “In the process, it is the dismissal, too, of the indefatigable spirit of the women who have been collectively fighting for their right to their own bodies over generations… That spirit and grit is what I want to capture.”

Like many autonomy-oriented feminists, Sikhander believes pseudo-emancipatory language can mask facts—that if you say something is “liberating” enough times, you will make it so. But the task of the visual artist is to create meaning through form, and this sculpture is a visual contradiction. It is revealing in ways Sikhander likely does not intend, embodying the internal contradictions inherent in the worldview the sculptor so enthusiastically embraces.

Sikhander claims that NOW is “a fierce woman and a form of resistance,” but no one would know this from looking at her. She has no arms and no lower legs, and as such is unable to resist anything that might come her way. She cannot run from the pussy-grabbing of powerful men, nor can she defend herself by writing legal briefs. Instead, she has snaking, cordlike appendages that double back on themselves and re-enter her own body. She appears fully autonomous. Unlike the two major female figures who already grace the courthouse—Peace, who originally held a dove in one hand and an olive branch in the other, and Justice, who holds two torches lighting the way for all—NOW offers nothing to the outside world.

Although some describe NOW as a “hybrid plant-animal,” her elliptical tubes are not tendrils that enfold another entity, nor do they reach towards the sun. The only life they sustain is her own. And despite the artist’s claims, NOW’s feet are not roots, firmly planted in the ground to stabilize her and exchange nutrients with other organisms. They balance upon the open magenta lotus flower that is her base, and do not intertwine or blossom from within. How could they? In Hinduism, the pink lotus is a symbol of the sacred feminine, the womb from which all life grows. Autonomy-obsessed feminism is an ecosystem of the self.

It is tempting to view NOW through the lens of late-stage imperial decadence: visual proof of a culture in decline. Primarily, though, she embodies a narcissistic feminism that teaches that women have to be naked to be noticed and that revering the self is the ultimate form of caregiving. The fact that Sikhander has not even utilized contrapposto, the weight-shift that physically animates the sculpted human form, belies her desire to create a woman with “spirit and grit.” The s-curve of her back surely highlights her perfect golden buttocks, but NOW’s spine—as rigid as that of an Egyptian pharaoh—bends for no one.

Ironically, in a time of body positivity and acceptance of diverse physiques, NOW’s entire figure reinforces the plastic surgeon’s ideal. Her breasts are high, her waist is tapered, and her hips are wide. Historically, this is the hourglass silhouette of the fertile woman. But Sikhander renders her sterile. Her form is as factory-molded as a Barbie doll’s, with even less detail in her genitalia. There are no triangular lines incising the portal to the birth canal. Her smooth and gilded surface emulates the hairless, perpetually tan bodies of pornography. Most revealingly, she lacks a bellybutton, the outward sign of our connection to the mothers who carried us in their wombs.

NOW rejects biological reality and any connection to another living being, whether those who came before her or those who will follow. It is a fitting monument for a society that believes women’s agency is founded on complete autonomy.

Like the golden calf of old, this idol demands sacrifice. Its worship can only end in destruction—not only of our children, but of our very selves.