Introducing our newest monthly series, #ArtPowerWomen! The goal of this series is to increase the visibility of important, unrepresented women artists. To do this, Art Zealous has teamed up in a pro bono collaboration with Curatious and GirlSeesArt.
We are kicking off this series with the formidable Taja Lindley. You might recognize her work from Spring/Break, Brooklyn Museum’s Target First Saturdays, and Fair. We sat down with Lindley to discuss her socially engaged artwork, healing practices, and the one year anniversary of the release of This Ain’t A Eulogy: A Ritual for Re-Membering film.
To be considered for the series, post your work with #artpowerwomen.
Art Zealous: Hometown?
Taja Lindley: I was born in New York and raised in the south – metro Atlanta, Georgia to be exact. I’ve spent most of my life in NYC and claim it as my hometown.
AZ: Drink of choice?
TL: Bourbon in the winter. Tequila in the summer. Rum year round.
AZ: Zodiac sign?
AZ: Talk to us about growing up in the South.
TL: As a young, outspoken and opinionated young Black woman, growing up in metro Atlanta was challenging. I experienced interpersonal and institutional racism inside of the public school system, especially concerning the use and reverence of the Confederate flag. In my predominately white high school, I became known as “militant” because I was consistently vocal about the subtle and overt ways in which racism was showing up: from students wearing confederate flag t-shirts depicting scenes of enslavement; to my psychology teacher teaching that IQ differed by race genetically (with Black people having the lowest IQ). While I spent a lot of time feeling pissed off, it was the fertile soil for my activism and my desire to create lasting social change.
AZ: You studied at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where you essentially created your own major concentrating in public policy with a focus on health and women of color. How has it affected your view of the world and your art practice?
TL: Coming out of my experiences in metro Atlanta, I was committed to focusing on human rights, social change, and systemic inequality. My studies and my jobs right after college were focused on ensuring that policymaking processes were more inclusive of the communities that they were impacting.
Being embedded in social movements has served as an important foundation for my creative practices and projects. Art can be moving, transformative, and enlightening – shifting how people understand themselves and an issue. As an artist, I’m concerned with how my work can push us closer to freedom, liberation, and emancipation. How can we use artmaking as a participatory policymaking process? How can creative practices support and sustain movement-building efforts? What interventions can artwork make in policies and cultural practices? These are questions I am grappling with as I create and share my work.
AZ: Burlesque has played a huge role in informing your practice, can you talk to us about how you first discovered the world of burlesque?
TL: Some folks in my community had participated in the Brown Girls Burlesque’s Broad Squad Institute (BSI) and suggested that I take their course. In the summer of 2013, I enrolled in BSI and spent six weeks coming up with a stage name, learning the art of striptease, and developing an act for our “graduation” performance. It was important that I learn about the art and history of burlesque in a women of color space because we were able to center ourselves, rather than center the gaze that comes with being in this body.
As a Black woman, my body, my sexual expression, and my decision-making are constantly up for public discussion and consumption. In this course, we had an opportunity to center our pleasure, our joy, our subjectivity (as opposed to being objectified) and create a performance that celebrated the reclamation of our bodies and our sexuality. It was a sacred space that allowed me to do a deep dive into my sensuality and creative practice. My graduation performance was entitled “Miss Black America” and explored how misogynoir and respectability politics impact Black women’s relationships to our bodies and ourselves.
AZ: Your stage name is incredible; can you tell us the story behind it?
TL: During my six week course, I created my stage name – sassaBrass: The Poom Poom Priestess. I am in love with this name! When I was brainstorming potential names, I was invested in creating something that demonstrated a reverence for and celebration of the divine feminine, as well as something that made the connection between spirituality and sexuality. So often these two parts of ourselves are polarized and seen in opposition to one another. As the Poom Poom Priestess, I am delivering the gospel of the pussy and exploring what is possible for our pleasure, freedom, and liberation through both the sacred and the sexual.
sassaBrass burlesque has been a space where I have been able to explore the intersection of beauty and reverence, and I use that concept and practice in my Bag Lady work. For example, in This Ain’t A Eulogy, every black trash bag represents a Black life; so when I create ornate objects, installations, and costumes with them, it is an honoring of the dead.
AZ: Let’s talk about The Bag Lady Manifesta, where did the title come from?
TL: The Bag Lady Manifesta is the culmination of three years of artwork I created as The Bag Lady. When I began working with her as a concept, she represented Erykah Badu’s version of a Bag Lady – the cautionary tale of a woman who is holding onto things that no longer serve her. But organizers in the movement for Black lives got me rethinking and reconsidering The Bag Lady’s meaning and purpose. In a world that treats Black life as if it’s disposable, The Bag Lady is an urgent reckoning and revelation. She is the accumulation of discarded lives and abandoned histories reeking havoc on the amnesia, the forgetting, the erasure and the silencing. She is a goddess-like figure spreading an urgent theology of memory, and calling on us to do the labor of memory as well as transform the conditions and practices that make a culture of disposability possible.
Through participatory performance ritual and immersive installation, her “manifesta” is revealed. The Bag Lady Manifesta is a public declaration of her ethos, her beliefs, her demands, her commands, her requirements to improve the human condition. She is concerned both with the mundane and the systemic because our collective practices of memory are informed by our individual practices.
AZ: Who is The Bag Lady in relation to the personality of Taja Lindley? What effect do you hope for The Bag Lady to have as a healer?
TL: The Bag Lady reconciles my shadow self – the part of me that doesn’t let anything go, that holds onto everything in ways that don’t support my relationships or my personal evolution. As The Bag Lady, that way of being has a place and a purpose. There is use and meaning in holding on, especially in a country that has a habit of selective amnesia, and violent erasure of histories and communities.
The Bag Lady is specifically interested in how re-membering can support our social movements and our self-expression. A world where we don’t need to forget parts ourselves in order to be loved and accepted. A world where we don’t have to let go of our identities or histories to be in relationships with one another. A world where our memories of incidents of state-sanctioned violence against Black people makes us do something to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
AZ: On that note, you seem to be very inspired by your own spirituality and healing. Can you expand on that?
TL: My artwork is a spiritual endeavor because I am literally working with spirit – my own and that of ancestors who have been violently killed. In order to do this work with integrity, it’s my responsibility to honor their lives and their spirit with ritual, reverence, intention, and care.
Also, the content of my work can be triggering, so it has to include healing practices – both in my process and when I share the work with others. Otherwise, I’d be recreating trauma and calling it art, and that’s no good to me or the people who I share my work with.
AZ: In a lot of your work, you use discarded materials. Is there something intrinsic to these materials that satisfy you as opposed to other materials?
TL: Trash bags are an accessible and easily understood symbol. So when I show you the names of unarmed Black people killed by the police painted on trash bags, you immediately get it – these folks have, quite literally, been treated like trash, as if their lives didn’t matter, especially when no one is held accountable for the crime for taking their life.
Repurposing these materials is also evoking a long history of the African diaspora remixing and recycling practices and objects that have caused us harm. Through subversion, resourcefulness, and genius, we have been able to survive a long history of violence and oppression. Transforming materials that were meant to be discarded is a clever and compelling way of calling on and embodying this legacy.
AZ: We’re coming up on the one year anniversary of the release of This Ain’t A Eulogy: A Ritual for Re-Membering film. What do you hope people will take away from that performance?
TL: This Ain’t A Eulogy began as a live performance that I later translated to film. So while the film is only a year old, this body of work spans three years and led me on a journey towards The Bag Lady Manifesta.
Anytime someone sees This Ain’t A Eulogy; I want them to feel a sense of urgency to ensure that state-sanctioned violence against Black people does not happen anymore and to co-create a culture in this nation that doesn’t treat people as if they are disposable.
With the inundation of information on social media and the ubiquitousness of state-sanctioned violence, people may become increasingly desensitized to the gravity of this problem. This Ain’t A Eulogy is meant to serve as a reminder of the grief, anger, and rage we should all be collectively holding while this epidemic continues to take people’s lives before their time and to serve as a catalyst for our collective responsibility to ensure that this violence is brought to an end.
AZ: What’s next for you?
TL: While I’m developing new work and projects, I am primarily focused on The Bag Lady Manifesta tour which includes performances, installations, workshops, and film screenings throughout the United States. I’m still accepting bookings so if folks are interested in bringing my work to their community, please reach out and let me know so we can make it happen.
AZ: How can we stay in touch?
TL: My website is TajaLindley.com. If you sign up for my email list, you’ll receive monthly news and updates about what I’m up to and where I’ll be sharing my work next.
Lindley’s work is available on Curatious.com
top image // This Ain’t A Eulogy at Brooklyn Museum Target First Saturdays. Photographer: Daniel Albanese