Cultural appropriation is a tricky thing. Through the internet’s power to connect the earth we now have instant access to “foreign” ideas and traditions at lightening speeds. There have always been conquests and colonialism, the merging of diverse tribes both peacefully and violently, but the rate at which we can observe other people’s worlds online is unprecedented. There is both good and bad to this, we now see graffiti’s populist messages spread across the globe and watch political regimes fall in real-time through our computer screens. We have become cultural mixmasters, sampling from far and wide as we absorb our daily doses of the latest interesting posts. These drive-by engagements with the intimacies of others can be both illuminating and alienating. We may “know” a little more about Pakistan’s daily rhythms, but we also have not sat eye to eye with a local elder exploring our shared humanity.
Part of what has happened with technology and globalism is the ability to travel relatively easily to other places. This ease has opened up the possibility to explore cultures that may resonate on a soul level, revealing unanticipated feelings of connection and belonging. The sincerity and authenticity with which one approaches this is unique to the individual, but we have all heard stories of people ending up in a completely foreign places that feel like their real home. The tricky part of this new global family is that we currently live in a world that is savagely unjust to many of the world’s citizens, and the voracious greed of our current economic systems is impoverishing a large portion of the global population. So when we dip into new communities, we carry the baggage of our stations in life and the biases and assumptions from that worldview that can create barriers to authentic exchanges. A new Tarot deck that is coming to life is a wonderful example of a genuine and inspired alliance between people from different worlds that shows us that we can build bridges between seemingly disparate tribes.
When I saw the images in The Ghetto Tarot by Alice Smeets on her Indiegogo Crowfunding campaign I had the visceral sense of a project that was undertaken with deep and thoughtful intention, and a powerful sense of dignity for her Haitian collaborators. Alice also has clearly found a sense of belonging in Haiti, and the deck’s imagery resonates with this heartfelt connection to a beloved place. This post is a response to threads that are currently circulating on Facebook questioning Alice’s integrity in using the word ghetto in the title of the deck and her potential exploitation of her Haitian co-creators. These are valid questions, and in one of the threads Alice explained that the artists would receive 20% of the profits from the crowd funding campaign after the publishing costs were covered, and that part of the money was to go to recouping wages already paid for the artist’s work on the photos at the time of creation. About the use of the word ghetto, Alice offered that the artists themselves prominently use the label in their own ongoing event called the Ghetto Biennale, and that she very consciously chose that term to provoke people to question their own assumptions about what the ghetto is.
The entire Facebook discussion makes me think about our ability to be with paradox, duality, and the unseen wisdom concealed behind the superficial. These artists take “junk” and craft their own visions that are a reflection of the beauty they see hidden within the trash. They are reframing a demeaning view of their community and claiming the word ghetto like some African-Americans have with the N-word. The deck suggests a ghetto manifesto that says “We will own this slanderous, derogatory term that is a gross misrepresentation of our worth, shape-shifting it into a sign of our own resilient beauty. We will capitalize on the power behind the illusions of inferiority you have tried to saddle us with, and we will rise above, sovereign and free beyond your labels of the victimized, impoverished ones.”
The unseen wisdom behind the facades also mirrors their organic religious mashup of African, Catholic, and indigenous island traditions, with a spirituality that is earthy, bloody, visceral and very real. Vodoun is an intense system, and the depth with which these colonized islanders carry the merging of many gods is powerful medicine in its own way. I personally am thrilled to see such a beautiful and fascinating deck come to light that dances with the dualities of the Mystery within the everyday. Alice’s deep respect for the local’s visionary creativity allows the classically anglo-dominated Tarot to evolve into another arc of the rainbow bridge that we are dreaming together.
I honor you Alice, and your innovative Atis Rezistans collaborators for reaching beyond cultural walls of prejudice and ignorance to follow the Spirit’s wisdom to offer a glimpse into the vibrant reality of Port-au-Prince’s glowing ghetto beauty. Bravo.
And order your decks (only about $25), books, and prints now on the Indiegogo campaign to support the emergence of more creative mavericks flipping the script through claiming the power hidden in the paradoxes: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-ghetto-tarot/x/6573193
An interesting video asking what if we loved black people as much as we love black culture: