The Black Power Tarot
January 13–April 1, 2017
Events are free, but space is limited—register to secure your spot.
Race and the American Stage readings
February 21, 7:00 PM–
The Black Power Tarot: a reaction by Idris Goodwin, December 2016
Playwright, Break Beat Poet, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Colorado College
Our icons are more than just makers of product; they are our cultural totems. Their lives straddle the line between history and mythology. They are our saints, our cautionary tales, our heroes. They were said to be "ahead of their time." Which means they lived in the future and yet they are our past. So they guide us. They are our blueprints and pathways. Black Power Tarot is a bold and celebratory gesture evoking our best, brightest and blackest icons.
Black Power Tarot is not a gimmick. It's playful and cool as hell but it's not mere fan worship. Arish Ahmad Khan (aka King Khan) is reframing a canon of black entertainers, moving them into the timeless realm of archetype. In its own unique way, Black Power Tarot operates in the black art of the roll call: the ritual of summoning the ancestors via those vessels for which they have chosen to speak. This practice harkens back to the earliest cultural utterances of the diaspora.
In an interview with critic Mark Dery, Dr. Tricia Rose, Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, states: "If you're going to imagine yourself in the future, you have to imagine where you've come from; ancestor worship in black culture is a way of countering a historical erasure." In keeping with tradition, Black Power Tarot evokes the celestial and astral, the mystical, the ascendant and transcendent.
This is the spirit of Afro Futurism. Coined by Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, Afro Futurism speaks to the black body and black imagination in the cosmos. Jazz musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton, novelists like Octavia Butler, visual artists like Kara Walker, hip hop artists like Outkasts and even public intellectuals like WEB Dubois have invoked the future, transporting us to otherworldly realms.
Significantly, the default aesthetic of black art is often harsh reality, as black Americans employ art as a means of reportage, catharsis and polemic. Critics use words like "grittiness" when describing such work. However, as Dery writes in Black To The Future, "African Americans in a very real sense are the descendants of Alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements..." In this way, Afro Futurism is not escapism. It's an invitation to consider an alternative reality. It reminds us that daily black life in and of itself is a constant new frontier, in and of itself an act of imagining. And our sacred icons help us brave the uncharted. Khan's work reminds us of this.
Much like painter Kehinde Wiley flips the expectations of early renaissance "Old Master" paintings by replacing Caucasian Arch Dukes with contemporary young urban men of color, Black Power Tarot is consciously subversive. It co-opts the frame of the 15th Century French Tarot Maresillus (and inadvertently all subsequent iterations) and infuses it with a culturally specific point of view, one that regards black icons with the same reverence as a High Priestess or Pope.
Lingering in the nebula of this endeavor is Prichard Smith's documentary Invaders, which Khan scored. This film introduces us to a lesser known Civil Rights-era group of black men and women who, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the notorious Black Panther Party, formed in response to police brutality, poverty and governmental suppression. They sought to organize and uplift their communities and in their own way engaged in an Afro Futurist conceit. They took their name from an obscure science fiction television show called The Invaders. They sought to fracture the dominant cultural narrative, and like so many others, were consistently and historically misrepresented, demonized and misunderstood. And this is where the roll call comes in. The insistence to name, represent, mural, exalt and memorialize our underrated, under-appreciated, exploited, misused and misaligned icons is not just simple fan praise, but a radical invasion of the dominant's cultural armory.
Arish Ahmad Khan's effort is not to level the palaces, but rather to open them, invite in a multitude of bodies, each carrying their ancestral dreams and radical notions of how the future may be colored. The Black Power Tarot cannot tell you the future but it does envelop you in a myriad of eras past. In doing so, it coalesces time into something cyclical. It reminds us that time - like symbols and narratives and canons - are social constructions. It forces us to ponder the objectives in their creation and reflect on the unpredictable, endlessly daunting prospect of an unwritten future.