When names painted on trash bags begin to flash across the screen in Taja Lindley's recent video work This Ain't A Eulogy, the subject matter is immediately clear. Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd. Michael Brown. They read, tumbling across the screen.
"The NAACP—around the time that there was consistent and spontaneous protests in the fall of 2014—they had developed a list of names of unarmed black people killed by the police from 1999 (Amadou Diallo) until the list was formed in 2014," Lindley tells Creators. That full list spans 76 names. "That was my source material."
Done in collaboration with choreographer Ellen Maynard, Lindley's film is the digital version of a work she's been performing for the past two years. Debuted in 2015 during the SQUIRTS: New Voices In Queer Performance Art festival, the project comes as the latest in a series of projects working with trash bags, positioning the common household item as a metaphor for black bodies.
"As I was in the midst of processing the non-indictments of the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I started thinking of how black lives are disposable," Lindley explains. "Not just in the case of those two men; it's just the history of what it means to be black in the United States." As such, the careless way those bags—those bodies—are cast about and forgotten, snagging on various elements in the opening scene, is significant.
The performance that follows is one of desperation, anger, protest, and organizing. Lindley appears, performing amongst piles of bags, dressed in a look made of the same. Blown up balloons appear amongst the bags, serving a dual purpose. "The balloons give some depth and texture and space for the trash bags, but they also represent the breath," Lindley explains. During the first half of the film, she spins time after time, rattling off names from the fated list of 76, interspersing those names with words like, "Don't shoot," and "Again," symbolizing the repetition of violence. "I was thinking about the choreography of protests. 'Hands up, don't shoot,' is how people perform protests, but also people were yelling, 'I can't breathe.'" But as in the history of the black community, oppression and the circumstances surrounding it weren't the end of this portrayal.
There is a turning point in the film when "The Bag Lady" appears—a character that Lindley has been working with over the course of a few works. She will be the subject of Lindley's one woman show, The Bag Lady Manifesta, debuting in it's final version this September at Dixon Place. Though the character was inspired by Erykah Badu's "Bag Lady," a woman weighed down with the weight of the world, not able to decide what to hold on to and what let go of, Lindley calls This Ain't A Eulogy her origin story. Birthed from the trash bags, those discarded souls, The Bag Lady is like a phoenix rising from the ashes, or more appropriately, like soul food crafted from the scraps slaves were tossed. She appears regal, commanding, and all powerful; her headdress, too, is crafted from trash bags.
"All of that life force [from those slain black people] coalesces and comes together to produce a being that is saying, 'I'm the elephant in the room.' The past will haunt you if you choose not to remember it. You cannot forget me, I'm standing right here, so what you gon' do about it?'" Lindley explains. For her, The Bag Lady is a deity birthed from the accumulation of this mess and is able to create something beautiful from it. "She is teaching me, in the last half of the film, about that work that she's asking me to do."
On screen, Lindley and The Bag Lady manipulate the bags, gathering them, causing them to fly, shifting them. At its simplest, this work, this transformation, is realized as community organizing. It is both powerful and moving, and Lindley has done the piece on screen and in person at performances not only at SQUIRTS but at conferences, on street corners, in festivals, in theater spaces, and in living rooms. And through it all, Lindley hopes for one thing.
"What I'm trying to ask people to do is remember," she says. In a world of 140 characters and viewable-for-24-hour messages, that's quite an ask.
To learn more about Taja Lindley, visit her website.