Suzanne Lacy, The Dark Madonna Project 1986

The Dark Madonna Project
Franklin D. Murphy Scultpure Garden
at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
May 31, 1986

A performance artwork by Suzanne Lacy and Susan Stone, with Anne Bray and Willow Young, featuring Linda Vallejo. Dedicated to the late Margo Albert.



Shadows in the Garden
Landscape Journal 26:1–07 ISSN 0277-2426
© 2007 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
by Sharon Irish

The Dark Madonna (1986), a large- scale performance project by the artist Suzanne Lacy. This evening performance took place in the Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and included two living tableaux with sound.
Focusing on different aspects of The Dark Madonna can be instructive to landscape design practice in several ways: investigating how Lacy’s intervention in the mid- sixties modernist design of the UCLA sculpture garden provided a counterpoint to the implicit assumptions of the garden; explicating ways in which performance can inform landscape architecture; and adapting community cultural development strategies that Lacy formulated.


Suzanne Lacy, a well- known white feminist performance artist, was commissioned in 1985 by the UCLA Wight Art Gallery to create a piece celebrating the establishment of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. Lacy chose the adjacent Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden as the venue for a performance. “In the UCLA piece, I wanted to do a theatrical work that tackled the relationship between women of different races. At first, it was to be about black and white women” (Lacy 1990b, 42–43).  In the various proposals to collaborators and funders, a broader range of intended participants developed to include women of Asian, Latin, and Native American descents, as well as African and European ancestries, “to bring issues that affect women, specifically women of color, into the public sector, so that they may begin

to affect public policy discussions” 3 (Bray Archives).  The Dark Madonna addressed a number of themes simultaneously:  race relations in Los Angeles; the Jungian concept of shadow; the figure of the dark Madonna in Europe, Latin America, and the United States; other goddess figures; women’s roles in civic life; and the canonization of art. That The Dark Madonna tackled such a wide range of issues makes its title something of a misnomer and complicates a critical analysis of the entire project.

To depict race relations among women visually—complex, painful, fitful, rich, and ongoing—The Dark Madonna was staged at nightfall in the sculpture garden. In this setting for the display of sculpture by modern artists, Lacy juxtaposed living “statues” with the permanent sculpture throughout the garden in two tableaux with sound (Figure 1).4 As a performance space, the garden provided shape, texture, and color to The Dark Madonna.

Artist Linda Vallejo, who performed in The Dark Madonna, described her belief that the dark Madonna is the earth, the nurturing soil that gives life, and how connected she felt to that idea as she sat with her month old baby in the sculpture garden, dressed in traditional Danza clothing. At the same time, Vallejo also recognized that The Dark Madonna appropriated a religious figure that, while it had a deep, spiritual meaning for her, could be superficially grasped and easily misunderstood

For Lacy, according to an article in La Opinion, the Dark Madonna represented “the woman of color and also spirituality, that something ineffable that everyone carries inside, but the image can suggest different things to each woman, according to her culture, religion or sensibility.”

The Dark Madonna or the dark feminine can represent our shadow selves, aspects of ourselves to explore and integrate, but the cultural shadow of racism and racist practices of the white majority makes any personal insight seem miniscule. While racism is a shifting and complex phenomenon, it infuses society at all levels, affecting people daily and significantly. In her essay on the 1986 performance, Lacy reflected: “The Dark Madonna suggests simultaneously that personal healing will be found in the inversion of reality, in the darkness of the unconscious, in social healing, and, perhaps, in the words of women of color” (Lacy 1990a, 69).

The Dark Madonna performance was a collaborative effort. Conceived of and directed by Lacy, it included Susan Stone as the sound composer and Anne Bray as the technical coordinator. Willow Young networked in the community and directed the tableaux, alongside dozens of volunteers during nearly two years of organizing in Los Angeles. Organizations that were involved included Women of Watts, the Hispanic Women’s Council, the American Indian Education Committee, and the Pacific Asian Women’s Network.


Essay by Sharon Irish Exhibition Invitation