Deck Name: Ghetto Tarot
Creator(s): Alice Smeets, Atis Rezistans
Publisher & Year: Self-Published by Alice Smeets with funding through Indiegogo, 2015
What needs to be said?
Whenever I need to ask my ancestors about a tarot deck, the words are usually difficult. So let’s just get to it.
This deck is controversial. We can’t even open the box before it starts.
The name of this deck is the Ghetto Tarot. Oh dear.
Belgian photographer Alice Smeets had lived in Haiti for a few years before embarking on this tarot project in collaboration with a group of Haitian artists, Atis Rezistans, the “Sculptors of Grand Rue.”
The accompanying Guidebook says the name Ghetto Tarot was inspired by the biennial art exhibition called Ghetto Biennale (see ghettobiennale.org for more info and amazing art). From the website about the event: “It is hosted by the artists’ collective, Atis Rezistans, and has taken place every two years starting in December 2009. The Ghetto Biennale is attempting to momentarily transform spaces, dialogues and relationships considered un-navigable and unworkable into transcultural, creative platforms.”
To get the most out of this deck, we have to see where it came from and possibly shift our perspective to hear what it has to say. The location is just as important as the people.
The co-founder of the biennial event, André Eugène is also the first artist listed on the Atis website. Sculptural works by him and other creators appear in this deck.
Haiti is not known to the rest of the world as a monetarily wealthy nation, but its cultural heritage and people are vibrant, rich, and have great depth. Alice Smeet does capture this in her photographs. Every inch of foreground and background brings more to the whole. There are no throw away colors. Metal and oxidized rust sing just as beautifully as bright red and turquoise fabric.
This background does change the way I read page 2 of the Guidebook:
“The Haitians are claiming the the word ‘ghetto’ for their own. The word reached the island from overseas where it was associated with racism, poverty and exclusion. They liberate themselves of this unfavorable interpretation and are turning it into something beautiful.”
This is not photos of people making treasure from trash. This is the work of talented models and makers of Atis Rezistans delivering the archetypal language found in the Rider Waite Smith 78 card tarot deck in a Kreyol Haitian accent.
So why does it evoke such varying feelings?
The Haitian models and artists were to be paid initially and also given an ongoing 20% of the profits. The photographer confirms this on the original and the second Indiegogo campaign, currently active as of this review’s publication. She even attempts to address the complaints of exploitation on her website. I do appreciate the Guidebook lists, along with each card’s explanation, names of the model or artist. You will recognize many of the names from the Atis Rezistans website.
And yet, I’m not sure the power dynamic and history of whites profiting from Black bodies can be removed from this project.
It carries the complicated history, prejudice, and the errors of translation because it was photographed by an outsider. Even the respectful tone is tarnished once it’s wrapped in the feel-good box of “change your mind, change your life” that proceeds from the initial descriptions. I don’t think she has ill intent, I just don’t think an outsider from that culture can truly get it and sell it to a wider (whiter) audience at the same time.
That’s why this deck gathered dust on my shelf. Can’t I just read cards and not have yet another conversation about power, poverty, and race relations? (I mean seriously, thank you for reading this far. It’s a lot.)
If I hadn’t, I couldn’t tell you about the relief and immersion of every single human portrayed being all sorts of Haitians with brown skin. You wouldn’t understand when I say I wanted to dislike this deck and that it sang in my hands anyway. Without the background, you might not understand why I’m proud of this deck shining gritty and beautiful regardless of all that nonsense. Difficult entrance be damned, this deck is some kind of magic and won’t be denied.
So once you wade through all of that, you can finally look inside the box.
The faux veve on the back of the cards is Vodou referential but nonspecific to my uninitiated eye. I see the structure of Papa Legba and Erzuli’s heart, both pleasing to look at but not a specific symbol.
Both book and cards measuring 3.5” x 5.5”, felt really large in my hands, attuned to my RWS deck. The oversized cards are a little awkward to shuffle at first but the cardstock has a silky semi-matte finish that eases the way. It tells me the visuals are more important than the ease of use. I’m supposed to look. See.
Straight up, I don’t like the font. Misprint on Strength aside, I find it over-stylized to the point of nearly illegible. I am also a little irritated every time I need to count the number of “pips” in the number cards to be sure which one I’m on, but that’s my traditional RWS showing. The lack of numbering allows more room for the picture and models to speak.
I can recognize most cards easily, as seen in the cool chalk drawing of The Wheel of Fortune and the adorable black boy joy Sun. And then there are others that require a look at the guidebook.
The Devil is an original sculpture made by the previously mentioned Andre Eugene of Baron Kriminel, “a feared spirit in Voodoo. He is envisaged as a murderer who has been condemned to death and is invoked to pronounced judgment.”
My personal reading was spot on, so I let the deck speak for itself, using a slightly tweaked spread from the Guidebook called Reveal Your Shadows. The intent of this spread is to “help you become aware of your clouds. It reveals your suppressed feelings, your thought patterns” and “the inner light aspects that you are covering up when you push this dark side away from you.” If shadowork sounds interesting, this spread is also available on the creator’s website as a free download
It conveniently uses Major Arcana and each of the suits separately. It is laid out starting far left, top to bottom, then far right.
- Major Arcana: What is my shadow side?
- Cups: How does shadow side manifest in my emotions?
- Pentacles: How does shadow side manifest in material concerns?
- Machetes (swords): In my mind?
- Brooms (wands): In my spirituality
- Major Arcana: Which light aspect are you simultaneously suppressing that will come to surface with shadow side?
In my reading I asked the deck:
- What gets in the way of this deck? What stands between it and those who may want to use it?
- Magician: Aren’t you so clever and worldly? Look at how different and edgy this is. The Guidebook describes the Shadow of this card with words like manipulation and exploitation. Well then.
- What are the emotions that get in the way?
- Ace of Cups: This cup runneth over and these cards are full of vitality and magic. Don’t let your own emotions cloud everything so much there is nothing left to see.
- Material concerns?
- 6 of Pentacles: Look, money and support beyond empty words is a real consideration. Find ways to share your generosity with those involved in the project however you are called. But do it.
- How does it impact the mind?
- 5 of Swords: It is complicated and messy. Within the creation of these cards there were some who benefited more than others. It’s hard to feel completely comfortable with a “win” like this.
- In spirituality/ethics?
- 5 of Wands: Wrestle with it, engage the varying parts and try to see the nuance and complexity. The struggle will yield more insights than disengaging altogether.
- What could be gained through engagement?
- Temperance: Harmony arises beyond and with the wisdom of mistakes made along the way. Refusing to engage means missing an opportunity for true dialogue between seemingly incompatible people.
The cards seem to urge not to waste the beauty and wisdom in this deck because of the way it was birthed.
Overall, this is a deck you will love or hate for a wide variety of reasons. The photos and humans are beautiful in a deeply real and embodied way that I find refreshing in an airbrushed, whitewashed world.
I have to be in the right headspace to work with these cards. This is not an airy deck, but still has nuance and plenty of personality. It asks me to engage a complicated world and still hear the transcending messages hidden in the cracks of life. But if I dare, when i’m done with a reading, I’m a little changed.
The Ghetto Tarot is available through Indiegogo or direct from www.alicesmeet.com
Find out more about:
Atis Rezistans at http://www.atis-rezistans.com/index.php
The every other year artist event in Haiti at http://ghettobiennale.org
You can see more of Andre Eugene’s work using #andreeugene on Instagram.