Lacy's Multicultural Feminism
The two public performances organized by Lacy in 1977 culminated in highly visible tableaux vivants for media dissemination. Both pieces insisted on bringing the dreaded word “rape” into the national limelight and on exposing sexual violence against women as a problem of great frequency and magnitude. Alongside these publicized events, Lacy has also practiced her ethos of connection with less visible, community-oriented service art. She maintained a long-term (1975–83) fruitful relationship with low-income and elderly women in James Woods's Watts Community Housing Corporation, conducting art workshops with these mostly African American female participants and producing collaborative exhibitions and performances. The process of art-making is utilized in the Watts project to facilitate participants' selfunderstanding and interpersonal relations.
Immigrants and Survivors (1983) explores how women perceive such issues as immigration, racism, survival, individual identity, cultural assimilation, and various socially constructed barriers to a gender-based interconnection. Lacy collaborated with sponsoring organizations such as the Asian Pacific Women's Network, City Commission on the Status of Women, Comision Femenil Mexicana de Pasadena, and Women of Watts, and developed this piece as a longterm community networking project that aimed to bring together a diverse group of L.A.-area women (close to 200) across their differences. Lacy adopted the format of potluck dinner discussions to create a cohesive force within this framework of multiplicity. As Lippard points out, the “potluck dinner format is a classically feminist collage. It brings together a highly disparate group of women and their culinary ‘offerings’ [to one another].” From the extended, half-year-long process in which participants exchanged their foods and stories emerged the metaphor that all women are immigrants to the patriarchal cultural establishment. Thus, despite the surface heterogeneity, their individual experiences all speak to the theme of women's survival.
On June 18, 1983, as the culminating event of Immigrants and Survivors, a multiethnic group of women in L.A. gathers to have a citywide potluck dinner/performance. Participants include Salvadoran exiles, Japanese American musicians, Native American poets, African American gospel soloists, bank executives, domestic workers, teachers, prostitutes, athletes, lesbians, housewives, battered women, women with physical disabilities, and former inmates of psychiatric wards. A visceral geography of multicultural alliance among women is visually, aurally, and emotionally mapped by the diversity of diners,
I find the spirit of this event captured in the brochure that each participant receives upon entrance: an elegant pamphlet modeled after the passport, made “official” by a colorless seal identifying the issuer as “Community of Women, Inc.” This feminist passport sports various “visa” stamps. The red oval stamp, with images of twin birds in flight, recognizes Lacy's nonprofit art organization, She Who Would Fly, as a major endorser of the project. The green triangular stamp, with aliminal figure that crosses between an elephant's head (a matriarch's profile?) and a raised fist, indicates the project's three crucial components: immigrants, survivors, and women. The purple oblong stamp, with symmetrical icons of a train and a ship, certifies the dinner participants as legal immigrants with a triumphant message: ARRIVING IN OUR OWN LAND, 18 JUN 1983.
Through Lacy's feminist lens, Immigrants and Survivors tested the possibility of multiethnic and multicultural cooperation among women of diverse colors, creeds, and backgrounds long before the term “multiculturalism” gained widespread cultural currency in L.A. The Dark Madonna (1986), the next and incidentally also the last, large-scale project that Lacy organized for this city, happened at a moment when multiculturalism was gaining momentum in media and academic debates. In its idealistic guise, multicultural consciousness in art insists on bringing to the fore the pertinence of race in individual formation and the acknowledgment of diversity in cultural representation as responses to the changing demographics and cultural patterns in the United States. In my assessment, multicultural art commonly strives for two objectives: (1) to destabilize the taken-for-granted correlation between “culture” and the aesthetic, literary, epistemic, and performative norms endorsed by the Anglo American hegemony; and (2) to reclaim the concept of culture as both ethnic heritage and a free semiotic zone ready for multiple linguistic, cognitive, and imaginative reconstructions. The general rhetoric on multiculturalism—having displaced “race” with the broader term “culture”— champions unequivocally cultural diversity and political inclusionism, if it remains complicit and reticent about the issue of race. Lacy's own ethos of connection agrees with this egalitarian spirit of multiculturalism, even though she has chosen women's issues as the focus of her art. In her attempt to reach women of different races, classes, and generations, however, Lacy's feminism has always had a multicultural dimension. What I might call Lacy's multi cultural feminism finds strong expression in The Dark Madonna, which considers the complex intersection of ethnic and sexual difference as a significant feminist agenda and frankly steps into the painful and explosive terrain of race.
The embryo for the project that would become The Dark Madonna was
Lacy conceived of The Black Madonna as a model project that would bring together various constituencies “to celebrate the historical representations and contemporary lives of ethnically diverse cultures in the City of Los Angeles” and to make “public the joint findings of community dialogue and of research in an effort to effect policies relevant to the needs and issues of ethnic minority and majority women.”The Black Madonna was renamed The Dark Madonna during the developmental process because of recommendations from Asian American and Chicana participants. The change, however, was challenged by an African American participant as a denial of the oldest known goddess, Isis, who was black and originated in Africa (Egypt). Another participant, of Scandinavian ancestry, defended the new title, suggesting that “‘dark'encompasses both white and black.” Such aconflict of divergent viewpoints, as we shall see, proved to be a recurrent feature in this ambitious academy/community/art performance.
On November 8, 1985, the first phase of this massive project opens with a two-day symposium entitled “The Dark Madonna: Women, Culture and Community Rituals,” hosted by the newly established UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. It is designed to explore, according to the brochure, “goddesses and madonnas from different times and cultures, particularly figures representing women of color … and the contemporary meanings of female icons in multi-ethnic cultures and in women's lives.” To the organizers' surprise, the symposium receives an overwhelming response from the community (600 pre-registered) and draws an extremely diverse body of attendees, most of whom probably want to hear confirmations about their own versions of the Dark Madonna such as the Hindu Kali, the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe, or the Asian Bodhisattva. The proceedings of the symposium, however, demonstrate how difficult it is to engage in multicultural negotiations.
A logogram of a Negroid-featured Madonna and child graces the symposium brochure. It seems a perfunctory homage to the conference theme, es-pecially when the symposium's opening session presents six white women whose talks pay little reference to the Dark Madonna, despite containing much
If this symposium's first act falters under the weight of unintentional ethnocentrism, the second act fulfills its promise to display a picture of diversity not only in the knowledge conveyed but also in those who convey knowledge. As a religious icon, the Black Madonna is traced to Montserrat in Spain; to the Song of Solomon, which praises the daughters of Jerusalem as “black and comely”; to the alleged Sicilian belief that the Catholic Virgin Mary is African; and to “Buddhist images of the feminine that go beyond the maternal to represent perfection, wisdom, and bliss.” The Black Madonna, nicknamed La Moreneta (the dark one) by some faithful Catalans, is worshipped in many parts of Europe (Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France) as mysterious, exotic, working wonders, and endowed with the power to ensure fertility and to lessen the pain of childbirth. Some of her icons are carved in ebony; some others, scholars have argued, have been blackened by centuries of votive candle smoke. In contemporary America, the Black Madonna is celebrated among African deities and Roman Catholic saints in Brazil; a darkskinned Indian Madonna has been sanctified in 1984 in Caracas, Venezuela. The Dark Madonna appears in California as the Mexican Virgen de Guadalupe, the symbol of the “good woman,” but also as her much maligned counterpart, La Malinche, the Indian woman sold into slavery who later served as Cortes's interpreter and mistress. The Dark Madonna's suggestive force is also associated with the attempts by African American writers, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, to redefine God in the image of the black woman.
As Kathleen Hendrix observes, the symposium's overall message is encapsulated by the Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen's remark: “We've been told women are a group that has no history. We are reclaiming our history. We don't have to reinvent. We have to remember and reclaim the power that is within us. It is in those real dark nights of the soul. That's when you go down
Bolen's emphases on remembrance, power, and survival echo Lacy's articulation of this project'sthemes as “ethnic heritage, strength and endurance.” While these motifs may sound too sacrosanct, this project's second phase, which proceeds through a series of community dialogues, pointedly grapples with the dark themes of racial discrimination, stereotypes, internalized oppression, shame, and life crisis. Positive notes are still accentuated: participants of this project are instructed to uncover the strengths underlying others' divulgence of their weaknesses.
The community component of The Dark Madonna, facilitated by Willow Young and Yolande Chambers Adelson, takes place among 200 participants at various L.A. locations during February and March of 1986. The plan is to collect primary materials from taped-recorded community dialogues so that the sound artist/engineer Susan Stone can create a soundtrack for the culminating performance pageant in May. The participants are first divided into basically homogeneous groups to discuss the Dark Madonna concept and its resonance with racial/ethnic issues. Conflicts emerge as the group subsequently begins to meet cross-racially. One basic problem is the location for meetings. After an African American woman from Watts, for example, travels to Pasadena for a meeting, she is concerned and angry that not one of the Pasadena women shows up at the next meeting, held in Watts. More than the city's geographic disparity, such conflict exposes L.A.'sracially and economically segregated residential communities. The woman from Watts does eventually decide to stay with the project after a meeting with the event'sorganizers in Watts. Her dissenting voice is incorporated into Stone's soundtrack.
Enter the third phase of The Dark Madonna, the performance pageant at UCLA's Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden on May 31, 1986. Inthe dusk, on the grassy slope, approximately fifty women and children, dressed all in white, display themselves as living statues on pedestals raised among permanent sculptural figures by artists like Auguste Rodin and Gaston Le Chaise (fig. 14). These female statues form a temporary museum of multiethnic and multigenerational tableaux vivants by assuming various stances and configurations that reveal their individualities. An Asian woman plays a white instrument; a Chicana, holding an infant swathed in white, sways softly in a rocking chair; an elderly Caucasian woman, with a teenager holding her arm, relaxes in a wheelchair; an African woman stands tall with her turquoisecolored lips pursed. These silent bodies, stilled for the duration of a sunset, are accompanied by prerecorded conversations among women, made into an aural collage, fluttering like overlaid whispers from the amplifiers planted in trees. Just before the last light fades, ten black-clad runners dart, zigzagging,
14 Suzanne Lacy, The Dark Madonna, 1986. Photo: Susan Mogul. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.
Stone's soundtrack shifts its character as the darkness ascends; whispers among women change from memories of pain, discrimination, and racism to stories about recoveryand reconciliation. Groups of six or eight women, dressed in black, emerge from all sides of the garden, shining their flashlights on the darkened paths. The black figures from the pedestals gradually join these women, who walk and sway in unison, like one body, until they reach a grassy clearing and sit together in a ring, their faces illuminated by the campfire-like flashlights. The spectators (about two thousand in number) are invited to walk closer, to audit, or even to join in the performers' discussions about their experiences with life crises, the resolutions of those crises, and survival. Lit only intermittently by the vestiges of flashlights, these attentive ears hover around the performers like silhouetted specters of forbearance, curiosity, excitement.
If Lacy's methodology is proactive, flexible, and practical, then abstraction is the order of her symbolism. In the performance pageant of The Dark Madonna, this order of abstraction appears in the three-part choreographed action sequence (from isolation, to contact, to community), in the reified attitudes assumed by the tableaux performers, in Stone's soundtrack marked by the dichotomy between strife and peace, and in the black and white color contrast of the costume design. According to Lacy, the two tableaux composed of women dressed in white and black represent for her “day and night, differences and similarities.” She also stresses that her most important task in this piece is to locate the precise moment when daylight changes into darkness in order to signal the performers to alter their costumes from white to black “so that suddenly the garden is all covered by darkness, like lightning,” Lacy says, “but I missed by about two seconds—I made the call too early.”
Lacy's search for precision in The Dark Madonna is in keeping with the level of abstraction she has brought to her artworks. It reflects a visual artist's propensity for creating an acute, frozen pictorial moment. This formalist propensity drives Lacy's desire for a clear-cut dichotomy between white and black, daylight and darkness, calamity and salvation—and, by implication, between the white plague and the dark madonna. For me, however, it is not the precise separation but the ambiguity between these states that makes The Dark Madonna a prescient piece. In a sense, The Dark Madonna actually becomes itself, a significant redressive/art performance, by inadvertently subverting the artist's self-assigned “most important” directorial task.
Because the action of The Dark Madonna happens at dusk, the contrasts just noted are reframed as transitions of experiential states rather than diametrically opposed entities. The performers' heterogeneity becomes less discernible when the realm of visibility in daylight gradually shifts to the realm of aurality and tactility in the dark. Predicated by the performance sequence, a picture of diversity first emerges, when the multiethnic living statues freeze in postures that crystallize their identities, taking up what Bertolt Brecht would call their “gestus”—the “gist and gestures” typical of their personal/gender/ ethnic/class modalities. These divergent identity-postures that memorialize the performers' particularities diminish in gradation as the night falls and the statues dismount from isolated pedestals to become a fraction in a chain of anonymous but communicating bodies.
At this juncture, I must admit that Lacy's choice of making the darkness her symbol of totality/unity has at least perceptual validity, because a communal rather than an isolated atmosphere is promoted by the reduction of the performers' visible differences and physical distance in the dark. The par-ticipants are joined in an environment conducive to fostering their affinities, for their bodies are literally, emotionally, and physically engaged by the common
The Dark Madonna demonstrates several distinctive features of Lacy'slargescale feminist/redressive performances, including (1) close attention to pressing public issues in a particular (urban) site; (2) an extended period of planning and execution; (3) a process of networking, community mobilizing, and institutional negotiations; (4) an effective media strategy to publicize the project; (5) a multilevel pool of participants and targeted spectators; (6) balanced manipulation of both form and content, aesthetic vessel and sociocultural messages; and (7) striking conceptual and visual symbolism. The success of the first five features depends on Lacy's competence as a social designer, her ability to assemble a massive production team, and her willingness to allocate a large portion of her work to others. Her sense of control as a director is likely to decrease in direct proportion to the increase of the project's scope, duration, and number of participants. All these factors subject Lacy to a decentering process as far as her artistic subjectivity goes, a process she endorses.
Lacy has stressed that her role resembles that of a facilitator more than that of a singular author: “The reason I'm doing [The Dark Madonna] is not because I'm Suzanne Lacy, artist, but because I really care about a collective voice.” While Lacy eagerly acknowledges her core collaborators—the production director Anne Bray and the community dialogue coordinators Yolanda Chambers Adelson, Willow Young, and Carol Hegshe—her signature as an artist is unmistakable in The Dark Madonna. I regard this signature as Lacy's claim to her artistic centricity in an inevitable and voluntary decentering process required by her project, for she never relinquishes control over the last two features on my list. Her artistic centricity is expressed in devising the three-phase performative frame to supply knowledge, stimulate dialogues, and ferment imagination concerning the multivalent concept/symbol of the Dark Madonna, which she also selects as the project's center to cohere disparate elements. The Dark Madonna is then the carrier of Lacy's