“Bag lady, you gon’ hurt your back / Dragging all them bags like that / I guess nobody ever told you / All you must hold on to / Is you, is you, is you” — Erykah Badu, “Bag Lady”
My hand reaches for my shoulders. Sure, I often have a tote bag on one side, a backpack, or if I am trying to look sophisticated, a handbag like the movie depictions of 20-something women in the workforce, but I found out that this area of my body carries my stress, anxiety and socio-political cargo. Although it is important to mention that I am not first-generation, I understand when the parasympathetic system is out of whack from the invisible burdens we carry. Every time I describe this, I think of Ernie Barnes’s “Miss America” with elongated limbs, carrying buckets with an unknown substance, an uneven stride into a forced contrapposto; for a while, she was the profile image of “Elbow Grease,” an Instagram page turned editorial collaborative amplifying the labor of femme and non-binary folks in the arts. This is an entry point to the work of three artists in the same social circle that depict and challenge their respective mediums to portray a sculptural burden.
The first work I saw of Kledia Spiro’s was “Burn the Bachelorette’s Red Scarf,” a two-channel video of her parents lifting furniture in their home to the song “Shamia e beqarit.” They perform and reinterpret an Albanian traditional dance where a couple show interest in each other: when a couple gets married, the bride is revealed for the first time by a partner unveiling her face underneath the red scarf. This allegorizes her parents’ interest in building a family which eventually brought them to the United States in response to the national civil conflict. Spiro recalls a time when her dad talked of bag searches in schools to make sure that there were no bombs in backpacks. Coincidentally, something that children typically carry has been weaponized by socio-political conflict.
In other performances, Spiro, an avid weightlifter, attempts to lift her parents but hasn’t succeeded fully yet, even with her sister’s help — a signal of the heavy load of emigrating to the U.S. and being femme in the American context of uplift (nationally, culturally and familially) and complicating the pulling yourself up by your bootstrap’s narrative. Are some loads heavier than others?