Latest Kieth’s Alley mural complete— Unpacking the ‘Tarot of America’
- Published: June 15, 2021
On the morning of Monday, March 1, a mural depicting George Floyd in Kieth’s Alley was found vandalized, white paint slashed across Floyd’s face.
Local muralist Pierre Nagley’s response to the desecration of his work was swift and direct. In a matter of days, he pasted over that white stain an iconic photo of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old brutally murdered by two white men in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The men were found not guilty and the woman later recanted. Nagley said at the time he wanted to “fight hate with love.”
It was not long after that incident that Nagley got started on a more ambitious and, ultimately, more comprehensive response to the act of hate he encountered in the alley. With his collaborator, Lindsay Burke, he began the “Tarot of America,” a mural that aims both to define the nation’s soul, and divine its destiny.
Those behind the Floyd mural vandalism have not been found. But the community, and its visitors, have a new work through which to contemplate the functioning of white supremacy in our country and culture.
Located on the rear of the building that houses Current Cuisine/Dark Star Comics/Pangaea, which has been a “free wall” since 1988, the “Tarot of America” features a panoply of social justice themes.
On the wall, nine cards — each a symbolic representation of America — are arranged in a pattern called a “spread.” In its totality, the spread is an unflinching look at who America is. Each card, however, hones in on one facet of the nation.
“It’s a spread for America,” Nagley said. “What we’re struggling with, and what American needs.”
Nagley will speak about his new mural at a Juneteenth event on Saturday, June 19, from 2–4 p.m. at Beatty Hughes Park. Sponsored by Help Us Make a Nation, or H.U.M.A.N., the event is also the unveiling of Nagley’s mural on the wall of the Yellow Springs News building that honors the late local author Viriginia Hamilton with reference to her celebrated work “The People Could Fly.”
Dating back to the 15th century, the Tarot has long been used for fortune-telling. With its use of common symbols and archetypal images drawn from a variety of cultures, it can also act as a mirror to one’s psyche. In this case, it is the psyche of our country being probed.
Nagley and Burke formed the INK Arts Collective last year, which is both a local tattoo studio and an artistic partnership. As Nagley finished the Floyd mural, Burke painted the free wall with an image of a phoenix dramatically rising above the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by Floyd’s murder in 2020.
Nagley said the tarot card that inspired them to create the new mural was the Hanged Man, which traditionally shows a person hanging upside down by one foot. Although not in the mural, Nagley found it representative of African American history.
“African people were brought here, kept alive. They had their freedom, liberty and identity stripped from them,” he said.
Yet he chose for the first card in the spread something that spoke more to the modern African American experience, portrayed in the Justice card. The card shows Floyd holding the scales of justice, while another Black American killed by police, Breonna Taylor, is holding a feather associated with the Egyptian goddess Maat.
“She is weighing the heart of America,” Nagley said.
Spreads unfold card-to-card. Nagley, in the role of reader, went on to explain the mural in the same way. Next up is the Emperor card, which depicts former president Andrew Jackson, drawn with his mirror image flipped horizontally, much like a traditional playing card.
That reversal was intentional, Nagley said, as some tarot practitioners use “reversed” cards to indicate a negative meaning. Nagley said that, while the Emperor card can mean “a positive way of engaging with the world,” upside down it indicates tyranny.
Jackson himself stands for such, especially because of his vaunted place on the $20 bill.
“Thinking about the continuation of white supremacy, he is glorified,” Nagley said.
The seventh U.S. president, Jackson may have owned hundreds of enslaved people over his lifetime, and his policies against Native people are widely considered genocide. Nagley additionally showed Jackson wearing a 12-pointed star, the badge of a slave patrol. The card also shows an eagle, an American icon, holding slave shackles.
The reading turns toward more benevolent expressions with the Hierophant card. The archaic term translates from Greek into someone who “reveals what is sacred,” according to Nagley.
In this case, the card includes the image of the revered Hunkpapa Lakota holy man and leader Sitting Bull. Due to his political resistance to U.S. government policies, Sitting Bull was killed by police agents hired by the U.S..
“The card represents finding what is sacred in this world and trying to protect it,” Nagley said. “There are other authorities in this world with wisdom besides human beings.”
Another lionized Indigenous person is represented in the Star card. Although Tecumseh’s face is not shown, the card features a panther, the Shawnee clan to which Tecumseh belonged. According to some translations, Tecumseh’s name means “shooting star,” another reference to the card.
“Tecumseh represents inspiration,” Nagley said. “He was one of the original resistors to colonialism.”
The Death card is next, but instead of a scythe, Death more aptly wields an AR-15 rifle. Arising out of the ground on which death is trampling are a disembodied head, foot and hands. According to Nagley, the head represents ideas; the hands, activities; and the feet standpoints, and point to ways to overcome a metaphorical death.
“The Death card really represents change,” Nagley said.
Up next, the Empress card depicts Hatshepsut, one of the first female Egyptian pharaohs. She represents the feminine spirit.
“Mothers and women have been leaders, especially in the civil rights movement,” Nagley said. “So we draw on that strength.”
Meanwhile, the Two of Cups exemplifies friendship and respect.
“It shows two people from different lands meeting and sharing in friendship,” Nagley said.
The next card in the spread is the 10 of Wands, the card signifying oppression in our society. Here, Nagley has depicted a jail cell with 10 bars, surrounded by four clocks, one in each corner, to represent “the passage of time in bondage.”
The spread ends on an empowering note, with the Knight of Wands directly below oppression, showing three Native people riding horses. Nagley said this card is a “shout-out to the Native people who have been standing up.” The black snake on the card represents the 2018 uprising over an oil pipeline slated to go through the Standing Rock reservation.
“The Knight of Wands is about the struggle for resources,” Nagley said. On the positive side, “it’s about respect for the Earth and respect for each other.”
The tarot cards are all painted in gold against a jet black background. For Nagley, that means that the “history of the United States was on Black skin,” and alludes to the search for gold by Spanish colonialists and early settlers.
Reactions to the new work have been strong, both from those who appreciate the recognition of the suffering in our country, and those who struggle to see it, according to Nagley.
“Racist folk come up and really freak out,” he said. “Two middle-aged white men came up and asked, ‘What culture is this?’ I said, ‘It is American culture.’”
“The only card they said they got was death. That was all,” Nagley added.
A longtime local muralist behind some of the most prominent Kieth’s Alley works, Nagley said his public work has gotten more political in recent years.
“I feel that as an artist I’ve matured enough to grapple with these issues. And I feel confident in my skills that I can do it.”
“I want to spend the time I have creating art that questions things and helps people live a better life in some way.”