Cultural Appropriation and The Ghetto Tarot

Ghetto Tarot

Ghetto Tarot

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.

Atis Rezistans

Atis Rezistans

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:


An interesting video asking what if we loved black people as much as we love black culture:

  7 comments for “Cultural Appropriation and The Ghetto Tarot

  1. December 10, 2015 at 6:34 pm

    Hi Natasha, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I am not sure what you are addressing with “foreign aid dependence,” but this project certainly has brought up a lot of challenging issues about appropriation, colonialism, and crippling social injustices. My experiences with how Alice Smeets has approached this entire project has been one of deep consideration and integrity. And that said I get that the players in this project can bring up some really ugly imbalances between Europeans and Haitians. My personal take is that projects like this are catalysts to heal these injustices by offering access to resources to groups that have been profoundly oppressed. By accessing the channels of resources that Alice has access to as an award winning photographer it opens doorways to the artists to get a higher profile and further their careers through the visibility this decks offers. We may not see eye to eye on this, and I know this deck has brought up strong, strong feeling for both it’s supporters and detractors. Mellissae


  2. Natasha
    December 10, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    As a Black woman, I really agree with this and will go further to say that the language I’ve seen the creator use in regards to “foreign aid dependence” also shows an ignorance that doesn’t sit well with me.

    Anyone that doesn’t realize that Haiti was plunged into poverty by the same nations (especially former colonial power France, who they powerfully resisted) that they receive “aid” from today, and doesn’t see it as just reparations for harm done to them is someone I deeply have issue supporting and that’s in addition to the oversight regarding fair pay and potential exploitation of Other’s stories.


  3. April 28, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    But as Einstein said we cannot fix the current problem with the same mindset that created it. So using the title ghetto for the deck draws people to it, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but we notice it. And when it is noticed then we can have a dialogue about the complexities of attempting to offer a different/ expanded/ unique perspective on place that is very loaded with complexities and injustices. I really really hear where The critics are coming from with this deck. We have long historical lines of cultures being appropriated and people being used for gain that they never see. My personal feeling about this deck is it is a sincere attempt to expand our connections with each other and share the beauty, power, magic, and vision she experienced with the local artist she cocreated with. And part of why I find the deck compelling is my limited understanding of the Haitian culture is that it is an incredible crossroads of spirits and traditions. So for me personally to be able to have a view into a world of artists who are merging spirit with the very earthly artworks that they are creating is really exciting. And part of how we get to bumble along trying to figure out how to rebalance an extremely unjust world is by getting to know each other a little more and be inspired by each other. And I have a feeling that there was some deep magic that happened in the creation of these archetypal images that have affected everyone who was involved in ways that may offer New levels of integration healing confidence and empowerment to the makers and the users of this project. I really don’t think as many people would’ve noticed it if it was called the Haitian Tarot. (Tuesday evening update: with the photography article that just came out about the Deck the campaign went viral and went from just under being funded to being 1.5% funded and the artists will receive 20% of all of the profits above the printing costs for the deck as was negotiated between all parties as was negotiated between all parties during the project’s creation)


  4. April 28, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Nico, I see your point, and two thoughts: 1. I cannot speak for the majority of people’s cultural and artistic interests, but I personally would find a deck that was made from people who were creating interesting and spirit infused art from unOrthodox and/or disregarded very interesting regardless of their culture. 2. As offered in the article we live in a time that is so violently segragated and imbalanced on so many levels across the globe that I still stand by the idea that it times we may need to do projects and market them in ways that have an edge to them so that they actually get noticed. They’re absolutely needs to be substance and intention and authenticity behind what is offered…see more


  5. Nico
    April 28, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I think you miss a major point here regarding appropriation.
    Would this deck be successful or interesting without the use of the black body and the provocation of the term ghetto?
    If not, then the artist must reconsider the distribution of funds. If I knew the artist was merely being paid for her time and the majority of the percentage was being used to improve the standards within the “ghetto” she is perhaps attempting to feature then it would feel less like an exploitation of the other for capital gain.
    The fact that this is not understood or considered in this day and age is appauling.
    Perhaps the thing most infuriating is that it was overlooked in the initial interviews and promotions and only considered after the threads erupted. The fact that the artist did not consider this beforehand and address it prior to putting the work out speaks volumes regarding how persons feel entitled to appropriate cultures and the work and ingenuity of artist for their own gain. #notbuyingit


  6. April 19, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Welcome magic traveler!


  7. April 18, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post and for sharing this project, I’m really interested to explore this.


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