OAKLAND, CA — Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution, a unique art-and-poetry collaboration, was just released by Nomadic Press, a community-based nonprofit in Oakland and Brooklyn that advances the works of intentionally marginalized voices. Inspired by a lucid dream, Peruvian-born visual artist, poet, and curator Adrian Arias invited 67 visual artists and poets with connections to the San Francisco Bay Area to create original work addressing the current moment. The inspired pairing launches as interest in the tarot is at an all time high. One Washington Post source estimates that sales have doubled in the past five years and tripled during the pandemic, and the Guardian and Vogue have written about the rise in tarot and other forms of spiritual guidance as coping mechanisms during these uncertain times. 

Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Arias told Hyperallergic, “From the beginning of their existence, tarot have served to recognize where we are and what we can do to take the next step in our lives.” Though tarot’s exact origins are unknown, it is generally accepted that it originated as a card game in the Italian Renaissance, with aristocrats commissioning special, artist-designed trump cards (tarocchi). However, it was French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette who, in the aftermath of the violent French Revolution, revised the cards specifically for mystical divination and called the entire deck tarot. A century later, tarot — along with séances and Ouija boards — gained popularity in the United States during the spiritualism craze ignited by the Spanish flu pandemic.

Modern decks consist of 78 cards divided into the Major and Minor Arcana (secrets), taking their imagery from the Rider-Waite Tarot, first published in 1909 and one of the most widely used decks in existence. The 22 Major Arcana cards address major life lessons and archetypal themes, such as “El Carro” (The Chariot), a card about overcoming conflicts and moving forward. Artist Ytaelena López has updated the traditional chariot to a skateboard, the crown to a protective helmet, and the pair of sphinxes (sometimes horses) to black and white cats embodying yin and yang. The accompanying poem by former San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck encourages the young female-presenting rider, who is clad in sneakers, a scarf decorated with crescent moons, and a salwar kameez, to find balance and strength to make the decisions that are needed in / this time.

Adrian Arias with tarot cards from Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution (image courtesy the artist)

The fifth Major Arcana card, “El Sumo Sacerdote” (Hierophant), upholds tradition and beliefs; drawn upside down, it challenges authority. In José Antonio Galloso’s composed collage, the High Priest, usually seated on a throne wearing a triple crown, is depicted as a head swathed in red turban and scarf beneath a 3D rendering of the COVID-19 virus. Instead of the hand customarily raised in benediction, this one fingers a gun, the sign of protest and power, in keeping with Arias’s goal to create “a space where we can recognize ourselves and fight for who we want to be.”

The 56 Minor Arcana cards are organized into four suits, from which modern playing cards descend — cups (hearts), pentacles (diamonds), swords (spades), and wands (clubs), and reflect day-to-day events. A powerful example is “Copas IV” (Four of Cups), which illustrates our tendency to disconnect from others and take things for granted. Painter Allison Snopek transforms the now-standard image of a young man seated beneath a tree, deep in contemplation, into a naked, meditating woman. Both fail to notice the outstretched arm offering them a cup, but the stakes for the oblivious woman are higher, as behind her, California forest fires rage. A poem by former San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía warns that fire can be medicine or it can destroy what we failed to protect.

Three new cards have been created especially for Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution. One, “La Madre” (The Mother), is based on an iconic feminist painting by the late Yolanda López, in which her mother, seated at a sewing machine, mends Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mantle. By surrounding a seamstress in the same multihued halo as the Virgin, the image honors the daily work of immigrant women, while the clean blue background evokes La Lotería, the popular Mexican folk art cards used for divination and for a Bingo-like game with a history similar to the tarot.

There has been a recent wave of inclusive decks, like Hip Hop and Modern Witches Tarot, and a tarot cookbook for harnessing spiritual energy through food. Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution reinstates tarot’s enduring ability to offer structure and guidance in moments of social unrest, and particularly significant are the representation of diverse bodies, the highlighting of tarot’s matriarchal DNA, and the centering of BIPOC artists and poets as the oracles and visionaries for navigating these times. 

A striking example of this is “La Muerte” (Death), the card of transformation and rebirth. Arias’s stark black-and-white pen-and-ink drawing of a skeleton on horseback resembles a woodcut print. Death carries a Black Lives Matter pennant, the numbers 8:46 — the length of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground — in the background. The accompanying poem by protest poet and editor Michael Warr references endless cycles of George Floyds / resurrected only to be buried again, while also reminding us that, Our bodies are more than a metaphor. As J. K. Fowler, Nomadic Press founder and editor, told Hyperallergic, “We are at once witness and participant to the death card being drawn. As oppressive systems writhe, new vantage points move into their place. Systems that never served anyone — even the oppressor — are finding less traction. People are hungry for new eyes to see with and during COVID, poetry’s resurgence and increased readership points to the necessary search for new ways of being. Poetry and tarot offer this guidance, two steps in a multi-step dance to guide us to balance.” 

Tarot in Pandemic and Revolution is a collaboration between Adrian Arias and Reneé Baldocchi of Baldocchi Projects & Collaborations and is published by Nomadic Press. The project is edited by Michaela Mullin, the booklet and box design is by Jevohn Tyler Newsome, and the card design is by Dánica Conneely.

There will be a New Year’s Eve event with art, music, poetry, and tarot readings at the Golden Gate Bandshell (Golden Gate Park, San Francisco) on ​​Friday, December 31, 2021, 7–9pm.

Faith Adiele is a writer, editor, filmmaker, and critic based in Oakland, California. She has presented at documenta (14) and written about art and artists for Alta Magazine, Detour, the Miami Herald,...