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Dec
02
2021
Public Art

Local muralist Pierre Nagley worked on his tarot-inspired mural on the “free wall” of Kieth’s Alley last month. Lindsay Burke also collaborated on the mural, “The Tarot of America,” which is now complete. Nagley will speak about this work, and another he recently completed in the alley at a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 19, from 2–4 p.m. at Beatty Hughes Park. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Latest Kieth’s Alley mural complete— Unpacking the ‘Tarot of America’

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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.

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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.”

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. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

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 10 of Wands, the card signifying oppression in our society, and the Knights of Wands, showing three Native people riding horses. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

“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.”

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11 Responses to “Latest Kieth’s Alley mural complete— Unpacking the ‘Tarot of America’”

  1. Tic Tac says:

    I don’t believe in disparaging anyone’s legal belief system. That may be all they have and we are not bound to agree with the Faiths of all others. Faith is personal. If a person’s Faith is made public by whatever means; we respect their right to believe as they do and we certainly do not misrepresent them for it. Blacks and others who have been murdered have been victimized enough. There should be some laws established if not already on the books about the use of their imagery so that any monetary rewards benefits their families, not alley galleries. This whole discussion about this mural saddens me. It has done nothing but distract from the bigger issues of Justice. This is one reason I gave up interest in art a long time ago. Don’t print this; I just wanted you to know!

  2. Re Floyd Tarot says:

    Pittura infamante ?

  3. SurrenderMaxamillion says:

    Everything that the village may want to consider before the next work features a recognizable image can probably be found via these websites:

    https://www.owe.com/resources/legalities/7-issues-regarding-use-someones-likeness/

    or perhaps a question could be asked to resolve this artistic dilemma here:

    https://bencrump.com/

    Good Luck!

  4. AnonAnnie says:

    There should be an “inclusive” committee to preview future artistic ideas before they’re committed to the “free wall” because murals tend to reflect a “whole community” to outsiders. You wouldn’t paint a mural of a Jewish villager eating a pork chop to honor him, would you? No, because everyone knows better; so why this? Everything I’ve read thus far about Mr. Floyd is that he was Christian who tried to help people up with Jesus.
    Certainly, it’s already garnered enough publicity for the villagers who practice divination for a living that you can paint over now. Peace.

  5. Laura S says:

    An idea for a mural with a clear message that others can easily relate to and participate in : a rotating mural every 3-4 months honoring a black life. A simple written message saying we send love. One single image. And then a whole empty wall for villagers and visitors to sign their names. A huge greeting card. Then send the image to the family. That would be a gift from the community to the family.

  6. Appollo says:

    I don’t think Mr. Floyd was involved in the non-traditional millennial church was he? If he wasn’t, using his likeness on something considered taboo or ‘occult’ by many traditional Christians, such as oracles, might be seen as disrespectful; unless of course permission to do so was obtained by the Floyd family.

    Looks like the sun might shine; Happy Juneteenth! I look forward to celebrations getting bigger and better moving forward as people truly understand the significance of the celebration.

  7. Laura S says:

    First of all it’s truly sad that there are people out there who would actually destroy a painting of George Floyd. That’s so ignorant and pathetic.

    This mural, however, is entirely too complicated for my taste. Too much going on. I’m not into tarot, but even with the long explanation I was more confused. It’s a little creepy. I like murals that any lay person can get, something that is clear and makes me feel inspired at the very least. I just don’t relate to this one.

  8. Art Luther-Carney says:

    ” a spread for America,” Nagley said. “What we’re struggling with, and what American needs.”

    I don’t understand why a White man has been commissioned to do this mural and speak for maligned races and I don’t understand why anyone who just doesn’t appreciate the work (Black or White or Native) is further maligned by being called “racist” and I don’t understand how this work “fights hate with love” It doesn’t have that feel for me. It feels more like an ad for a Tarot reading (I have my own cards,). If he is, indeed, a ‘mature’ artist he can take the criticism without calling people names.

    Please have a safe and joyous celebratory weekend!

    I am happy that we have Juneteenth recognized as a Federal holiday now and believe that is reason to be joyous and celebrate.

    Please have a safe and joyous celebratory weekend!

  9. D.Stuart Wendall Laramie-Cold says:

    Well, I find it reflects negative energy and will make certain to avoid it next time I’m in town.

    Better to inspire with positive messages and save historic and recent tragedies for other media to facilitate research rather than setting them to stone. We don’t need to manifest more of the same; we want, desire, and deserve better for ALL people. Frankly, this could doesn’t seem well thought out; it’s too dark and eerie in a “moth man” sort of way. Good luck with that……….seriously. (That’s one)

  10. Beajae Whi says:

    Creepy. Dark. Depressing. I understand the symbolism; I’m familiar with tarot cards; but, why in hell’s hiccups would you suggest it “define(s) the nation’s soul, and divine(s) its destiny.” (and paint that spread in stone)???? I don’t accept that. It’s too dismal.

    It feels “hopeless” when we need more hope and more kindness and more love. Good luck with your future artistic endeavors. We all want a better future, even those who practice being here now.

    There are many good books devoted to the “spiritual” influence of the Tarot such as this one reviewed:

    https://musingmystical.com/the-spiritual-roots-of-the-tarot-by-russell-strugess/

  11. Baba W says:

    Beautiful and comprehensive, thought evoking design by a very talented artist. Bravo! and Thank you!

    sidebar: Wasn’t the concept of Tarot originally meant for illiterate peasants who could not read holy scriptures; so that the stories therein could be more easily understood, like a picture book, retained, and retold?

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