Believers Magic Is for Everyone: Meet Some of the Artists Bringing Racial Diversity to Tarot
Creators of new decks seek to address the need for representative and culturally specific tarot.
While the history of tarot is somewhat murky, the practice is thought to have emerged from playing cards that arrived in Milan and other European centers from the Islamic world in the fourteenth century. In the early fifteenth century, a Milanese duke named Filippo Maria Visconti asked the artist Michelino da Besozzo to create a deck based on these cards. Records from the period describe da Besozzo’s cards as gorgeous objects of art featuring figures called the Virtues, the Riches, the Virginities, and the Pleasures, hand-painted with gold details. A set from the same era, attributed to the Italian fresco painter Bembo Bonifacio and known as the Visconti Deck, portrayed ornately costumed kings, queens, and male and female knights and pages against lavish gold backgrounds. These tarot decks of fifteenth-century Europe became associated with divination and esoteric knowledge in the eighteenth century, eventually giving rise to modern tarot.
Most contemporary tarot decks consist of seventy-eight cards. Twenty-two of these form the major arcana, which depict archetypes that go by names like the Chariot or the Tower and represent major life stages. The remaining cards form the minor arcana, and are divided equally into suits known as the wands, the cups, the swords, and the pentacles (or coins). Each is assigned a number and a meaning, so that the Three of Swords, for example, signifies heartbreak, whereas the Ace of Cups indicates abundance and creativity.
I was drawn to tarot the moment I stumbled on it in college, in part because it was so different from the Hindu deities my parents brought from India when they immigrated to the United States. Hinduism, and my parents’ ideas about what it means to be a “good Indian girl,” seemed to focus on how I should live rather than how I wanted to live. Tarot allowed me to explore my personal spirituality and desires without the attendant cultural pressures and baggage.
As I’ve grown older, tarot has become a steadfast part of my self-care routine when considering and exploring the big questions: Am I in the right career? Should I end this relationship? How should I think about the year ahead? The archetypes and their accompanying images offer a pre-established framework for interpretation, a mode of seeing that trusts in the inherent rightness of the universe and simultaneously feels flexible and unfixed. If I am in control of how I understand the cards, I tell myself, perhaps I am in control of my life, too.
Still, there’s an aspect of tarot that I’ve struggled with: the whiteness of the people portrayed on the cards. A quick shuffle through the the Rider-Waite or Golden Tarot—two of the modern era’s most popular and enduring decks—is reminiscent of the pale, pink-cheeked faces on Bembo’s deck. This is true of many, more recently published decks as well; white figures and faces abound. The homogeneity of some of the most visible tarot decks has given me pause. How can tarot help me, an Indian American woman, navigate the world when the cards do not even acknowledge my existence?
The Survivor, Asian American Mental Health Tarot / Artist: Monica Ong / Image courtesy of Mimi Khúc
I’m not alone in this observation. Artists and curators have begun to address this gap in the tarot market by creating cards whose meaning, artistry, and politics meet the needs of people of color. One of the decks to emerge from these efforts is the Asian American Mental Health Tarot deck. Consisting only of the major arcana, the deck was created by Asian American studies scholar Dr. Mimi Kh úc for a special mental health issue of the Asian American Literary Review . Its imagery and accompanying commentary are designed to address mental health needs that are specific to the Asian American community.
Kh úc, thirty-five, was inspired to create the deck after experiencing pos tpartum depression following the birth of her daughter. “That [experience] got me thinking about mental health issues, the particular ways they show up in the Asian American community, and the particular forces that shape what mental health and mental illness feel like,” she says. After seeing a colleague give tarot readings at an Asian American studies conference, she realized tarot gave people a means to reframe their lives by putting the power of decision-making into their hands. Could tarot also complement psychology and psychiatry as an intervention in mental health practices? she wondered.
The Model Minority, Asian American Mental Health Tarot / Artist: Simi Kang / Image courtesy of Mimi Khúc
Kh úc’s deck attempts to answer this question by looking beyond specific pathologies and psychological conditions to the structural forces that often impact Asian American mental health, such as immigration, war, and the model minority myth. As Kh úc points out, these forces don’t make Asian Americans more or less mentally well or ill than their non-Asian counterparts, but they can play a role in how wellness and illness manifests for them.
Tarot, at first glance, may not immediately appear to be a form of addressing mental health issues, but this is precisely why it has so much potential within the Asian American community. Mental health remains a taboo subject in many Asian American communities. This avoidance and stigma is often compounded by a deep-rooted belief that the needs of others come before one’s own, leading to untreated mental health issues that, in turn, create new traumas in families already reeling from experiences with racism, war, and death.
Reflecting some of these ideas and common experiences within the Asian American community, Kh úc’s cards include archetypes created especially for the deck, like the Scholar, the Refugee, and the Model Minority, alongside traditional ones such as the Lovers and Death. To bring the cards to life, she invited Asian artists like Camille Chew and Simi Kang to contribute images that speak to the diversity of identities within the Asian American community, and scholars and writers to compose interpretive guidelines for querents.
The Refugee, Asian American Mental Health Tarot / Artist: Simi Kang / Image courtesy of Mimi Khúc
For the Refugee—one of Kh úc’s favorite cards—Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen, a professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, writes, “Floating on the ocean’s changing currents, the Refugee imparts strength to those living with uncertainty . . . In a reading, the Refugee can signal a crisis requiring an intervention. But while crisis might intensify as a catastrophic event, the danger might well be an ongoing condition or structure.” On the front of the card, a cluster of boats pushes away from a shoreline on fire as a helicopter soars above them, invoking the violence of American-borne war in Southeast Asia.
To bring the deck to life, the Asian American Literary Review initiated a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $13,000 in excess of its original, $10,000 goal. The success speaks to the profound need that Kh úc’s deck attempts to meet—a need that I increasingly feel, too. When I bring up my own discomfort with existing tarot decks, Kh úc agrees, pointing out the explicit political intention of the Asian American Mental Health Tarot. “ The archetypes that are built into the traditional tarot deck are meant to be seen as universal. But it’s quite white and leaves out all kinds of experiences,” she notes. “It can make our experiences seem like they’re not understandable or not applicable to other people.”
I also spoke with Tampa-based artist Courtney Alexander about her forthcoming deck, the Dust II Onyx Tarot . Alexander, thirty, describes the Dust II Onyx Tarot as a “melanated tarot deck” that she was inspired to create during a turbulent period in her life.
Like Kh úc, Alexander saw tarot as an avenue toward mental health treatment and self-care, but couldn’t find a deck that satisfactorily represented Black people. “There would be Black people and Indian people and Spanish people just all mixed up,” she says, speaking generally about decks that depict a range of racial and cultural identities. “And I was like, okay, that’s cool, but I’m still trying to search for something that resonates with my experience as a Black person.”
A look at the current tarot market bears out Alexander’s concerns. King Khan, the creator of the deck known as the Black Power Tarot , is a non-Black person of color. Decks for and by Black people that do exist are often limited editions and difficult to acquire, such as sculptor Amir Bey’s Equinox Celebration deck. Eager to fill the void, Alexander established a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of the cards and soon raised more than her original goal. With Dust II Onyx, she aims to reflect the diversity of the African diasporic community that uses tarot.
The Devil, Dust II Onyx Tarot | Artist: Courtney Alexander
“I wanted to create a deck that didn’t just focus on one type of Black experience. I didn’t want it to be strictly Caribbean religion, strictly Christianity, or strictly urban,” she says. The deck also strives to be gender-inclusive: “The book that accompanies the deck avoids any gender pronouns unless absolutely necessary unless I’m talking about a deity or a tradition that uses [specific pronouns]. I want everybody to be able to connect [to the deck] in regards to their own gender identification.”
Alexander creates each Dust II Onyx card by hand. She insists on using black pigment, rather than shades of brown, to foreground the Blackness of the figures in the deck with visceral detail. In addition, she has designed the details of the cards to reflect the spiritual progression that she hopes the deck will facilitate. The minor arcana of Dust II Onyx completely lack facial features, whereas the majors have defined faces. “The idea,” shares Alexander, “is that we start off as dust and we go through our experiences and we become onyx.”
Alexander’s deck mostly hews to the traditional major and minor arcana with the exception of innovations like The Moor, which evokes the cultural milieu that gave birth to the cards that eventually became tarot. She illustrates each card with images partly inspired by figures who have appeared in her dreams, as well as Black artists, athletes, and celebrities whose work, personalities, and even astrological charts fit with one or the other arcana. “I looked to icons like Grace Jones,” Alexander says, “who represent, in my mind, free expression and uninhibited Blackness. So you’ll see her on a couple of cards, like the Emperor, but she’s also the High Priestess.” The deck draws on similarly pathbreaking Black artists like Prince, for the King of Cups, and Quvenzhané Wallis, for the Page of Pentacles.
The Moon, Dust II Onyx Tarot | Artist: Courtney Alexander
By creating Dust II Onyx, Alexander joins the efforts of other contemporary Black practitioners of magic who use the occult to combat racism and oppression. They include Black Witch Chronicles , an online community which uses spellwork to resist police brutality and the colonization of African and Afro-American witchcraft by white societies, and RAGGA NYC , a queer Caribbean artist collective whose exploration of the intersection of activism and magic was recently exhibited at the New Museum . These projects are rooted in the Black community’s longstanding tradition of using magic to fight colonial empires, as in the use of Vodou by Haitian slaves to expel the French .
Dust II Onyx plays a particularly important role in sustaining these efforts thanks to the relationship between representation and access to one’s personal spirituality. The power of images cannot be dismissed. “When you first look at the cards and it’s all white people you think, this is like, white people magic; this is their thing,” Alexander tells me. “And you don’t see how it can connect to your own way of healing.”
Creators of new and diverse tarot decks are attuned to the need for culturally specific access to spirituality. The efforts of Kh úc and Alexander may seem negligible in a country rife with the erasure of marginalized people. But by representing people of color without simplifying or fetishizing them, they create precious new spaces where people of color—and especially women of color—can safely explore their spiritual practices far from the invasive ethos that the white figures of many decks ultimately espouse.
This in turn allows us to think about which aspects of our natal communities we want to keep and which we want to reject. Spiritual introspection doesn’t just give querents insights about the past, present, and future. It empowers them to continue the struggle for equality and visibility. Alexander sums it up perfectly: “Being able to see yourself in the cards is just so important.”
My hunger to see South Asians in tarot—not as “om”-touting caricatures, but as living, breathing, powerful entities—increases as I grow older. Creators of new and diverse tarot decks aren’t just providing inspiration, access to tarot, for their communities: They’re giving it to themselves as well. Tarot is about agency, and sometimes you have to seize that power yourself. I can’t wait to shuffle a deck and finally see people like me on the cards—even if that means I wind up creating them myself.