Taja Lindley is taking flight. While playing the titular character in The Bag Lady Manifesta, she embodies the spirit of the Sankofa, a Ghanaian bird from Akan lore that extols the virtues of learning through remembrance. During her show, Lindley recalls her own shadows, black lives lost to police violence and other collective wounds. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based performance artist, who talked about grappling with the past, systemic racism and throwing out trash. Remember with Lindley as she performs The Bag Lady Manifesta at Oberon on Nov. 15.
How did the Bag Lady first come into existence? The Bag Lady is more than a character, more than a person. She is otherworldly. She is a goddess-like figure, not God herself, but an aspect of God that is concerned with a particular human condition. And that [condition] is how humans do and do not remember, how we forget, erase, participate in selective amnesia. And she’s over it.
You know how when you throw out a bunch of things in the trash and you let it sit there, something new begins to grow? Like there’s bugs that come out, there’s new life that gets born in light of the things you threw away. She’s coming out of all the things that we’ve thrown away, pieces of our identity, the things of ourselves that we hide so we can be loved and accepted by other people.
She comes out of the collective histories that we’re unwilling to grapple with and deal with, the way in which memory has been a political project in the United States. Specifically, I’m thinking about state-sanctioned violence. So many black people have died because of systemic racism. I’m speaking specifically about unarmed black people killed by the police.
What happens when so many people are killed so violently, when your life is taken from you and leaves your body in such a way? That buzzing that might happen, that energetic build up over time, it is inside of that accumulation that she has been born.
You’ve described her as a “living Sankofa,” a symbol associated with a proverb that means, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” How does that idea tie into the Manifesta‘s message? The symbol itself is a bird who is looking back while walking forward. This idea that we can simultaneously be reviewing and caring about these parts of our past [while moving forward]. It’s not only possible; it’s necessary.
I think part of the reason why systemic violence continues against black people in particular is because we have not remembered all the other folks for whom this [story] might apply. So when it happens, we get into the details of that person as we should — what happened, who did it, what could’ve happened differently. But if we don’t zoom out and look at the whole, which often times our media outlets don’t always provide opportunities for, then we miss it.
For people’s lives to be taken before their time and also be forgotten, it’s disrespectful. In order for us to create the world we want to live in, we’ve gotta really grapple with our past.
The show is billed as a “participatory performance ritual.” In the sense that rituals typically grasp at something higher — a power, a purpose — what is The Bag Lady Manifesta reaching toward? While it’s billed as a one-woman show [and] it’s built into a theater space, it is not a situation where people can expect to just sit and consume me performing. There’s emotional and physical labor that I ask of people in the show. It’s an invitation. Whether or not people take me up on it is a whole other matter. The things that we do on a micro level really have an impact on what we do on a macro level. This show is an opportunity for people to consider and observe themselves in the work and say, “How am I showing up?”
We do talk about personal things. We don’t just talk about state sanctioned violence. We get there, but how we get there requires us to do some personal work. [We do the work] so that we can be moving in a world where we can tell our truths and be our whole selves without fear of losing our life, where we can take up space as we are. We can accept our mistakes, learn from them, grow from them. That’s the real work.
You’ve been touring this piece for over a year now. How has your relationship to the work changed during that time? The bags that will be in the show, many of them have traveled with me to all of these places. We do buy new bags sometimes … but there’s a mash up of bags that have been touched by people from so many different places. Some of them were even in the film, This Ain’t a Eulogy.
At some point when I started performing this work more often, I was like, “Oh I really need to keep the bags!” It gets expensive. It’s not good for the environment to throw them away. What I loved is one of the Manifesta text pieces is “to carry the weight.” So I feel like I’m actually doing that. We ship the boxes full of bags to different places. We’ll be driving up with some when we come to Oberon. It’s lived in the work, not only what’s done on stage, but the process for making the work possible. ◆
Taja Lindley performs The Bag Lady Manifesta at Oberon on Nov. 15