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Immaterial: Bonus Episode, Tarot Transcript

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[Sound of cards shuffling]

Suhaly Bautista-Carolina: I don’t know that the maker has to be defined as an artist for me to think of what they've made as art. I can pick up this card and say, ‘this is so beautiful.’ And I see the art, and the magic, and the wisdom, and the respect in this beautiful thing that was made. That feels like enough.

Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong: So, a lot of questions came up while we were making this show. Questions like, ‘what is art?,’ ‘who gets to decide?,’ and ‘who is it for?’

Eleanor Kagan: Yeah, though a lot of these questions were not ones we could easily find answers to while talking about, you know, the weight of concrete, or the amazing sounds that people can get out of conch shells. But they kept coming up again and again for us. It was actually really surprising to find out that, in some ways, the perfect way to explore these questions was… through tarot cards.

Gyimah-Brempong: We’re the producers of Immaterial; I’m Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong.

Kagan: And I’m Eleanor Kagan. So, Adwoa, do you remember back when we started doing our research for this show I visited The Met one day and I met with Marco Leona, The Met’s Scientist-in-Charge—incredible title—

Gyimah-Brempong: [Laughs]

Kagan: We were in his chemistry lab in the basement of The Met and at one point, he leans in and he says to me, “do you want to see the world’s oldest tarot cards?”

Marco Leona: So we had these tarot cards from the Morgan Library. I think they’re fascinating because they’re beautiful works of art. These were made as a wedding gift for the Duke of Milan in 1458. Each one of them is hand painted. There’s plenty of gold. They’re miniature paintings. They have a little bit of the technique of panel painting of the time. They have a little bit of the technique of illuminated manuscripts. They may or may not have been used for actual playing, because they’re not very worn.

Kagan: I then learned that The Met actually has a bunch of  tarot decks, all from different eras in their collection—and something about this knowledge made me think that we should make a whole episode about small, handheld paper ephemera that you collect. And then we met Allison Rudnick. She is the ephemera curator—also an amazing title—at the Museum’s Drawings and Prints department.

Allie Rudnick: There’s an intimate quality to a lot of these objects. So many of the objects that we have in the ephemera collection can fit in one’s hand.

Gyimah-Brempong: Tarot is, like, the definition of small, intimate paper. I have a ton of decks, and they all kind of feel different to me. Each deck feels different, sounds different when you shuffle it. [Sound of cards shuffling.] They’re tools of divination, so they literally speak through your hands. But are they art? They’ve got the pedigree. Tarot cards were born in Italy during the Renaissance.

Leona: We load them with the tarot card meaning, like, you know, ‘pick a card—not that one!’ [Chuckles.] But in reality, they were not used for divination. It’s a regular deck just very much like one in use today, with twenty-two extra cards, twenty-two extra face cards. Which, they’re not knight, king, and queen, they’re allegorical cards. Each one would triumph over the other—would trump over the other, according to a complex sequence. The word “trump” in English comes from the Italian word trionfo, “triumph,” which is what they were called. They were not called tarot; they were called trionfi.

Kagan: Europe’s Roma population would later transform them into that tool of divination. The most well-known tarot deck today is probably the Smith-Waite deck. It was illustrated by this artist, Pamela Colman Smith, and published in 1909. The figures in it are primarily white, and it’s so recognizable it’s kitsch. But Colman Smith may have been biracial—historians aren’t really sure. They do know she was a serious painter, and that deck was meant to stand as a work of art. 

Gyimah-Brempong: Traditionally,  tarot has not been subtle about gender.

Kagan: Oh, yeah.

Gyimah-Brempong: Or any other hierarchies. But artists today are disrupting that to tell new stories.

Kagan: And on that note, we are also going to be breaking the rules a little bit for this episode. Tarot is not a material per se. But in the way that we have really wanted to tell these deep, expansive stories about concrete, and paper, and jade, and all the other materials in this show, we felt like tarot contained these stories, as well. Both the cards and the decks that are at The Met and the ones that exist in the world outside of it.

Plus, I’ve learned so much from you, Adwoa, about your interest in tarot. I’m gonna step aside and listen along with everybody else to some of these truly fascinating conversations you’ve been having with artists who make tarot cards, who use tarot cards, and just people who think about tarot cards differently.

So from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is Immaterial.

[Cards shuffling]

Gyimah-Brempong: Before we get started, you have to meet Suhaly. Suhaly Bautista-Carolina is senior managing educator of audience development and engagement at The Met. She’s also a spiritual community herbalist. Her mom was a devout Catholic, and she says the first tarot-like cards she ever saw were the prayer cards and saint cards on her mother’s altar.

Bautista-Carolina: They were very colorful. The kinds of photos or images that you would see in a stained-glass ceiling at a church, or something like that. And usually they were of a baby Jesus, or a Mary image. She gave them so much importance in the way that she used them and prayed to them, and put them alongside her other ritual objects, that I understood them very early on to be important.

Gyimah-Brempong: Suhaly’s altar has echoes of her mother’s—there’s a glass of water, a dish of camphor. And the way she uses tarot cards is not so different either. But her cards look wildly different from those pictures of the blue-eyed baby Jesus that you might be imagining. They’re also a radical departure from the medieval images that you’d find in the Smith-Waite deck.

Bautista-Carolina: I love seeing black and brown and disabled bodies and non-binary bodies in a deck, which I think is part of the reason why I love Next World Tarot so much is because I see my community inside of that deck so clearly.

Gyimah-Brempong: Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot is one of the modern decks that uses tarot to challenge the status quo. Some figures have dyed hair or piercings. They’re wearing crop tops, holding bullhorns and electric guitars.

Bautista-Carolina: Strength is represented by a seemingly non-binary person, watering plants. And so for me, that’s about like, what does strength look like? Is that an overpowering, overbearing, sometimes violent representation of someone taking over something else and having power over? Or is it about being in relationship with something that you nourish, that allows both of you to be strengthened by what you’re doing?

Gyimah-Brempong: There are seventy-eight cards in a tarot deck. Which means some artist sat down and made seventy-eight small works on paper. And yet, a tarot deck is often seen as ephemera, which is explicitly not art. Who makes that choice? I mean, I guess on one hand, everything can’t be art... or can it?

Bautista-Carolina: To me, there can never be enough. I don’t know… it’s like a scarcity mentality, to have too much art. Is it like, there’s only allowed to be so many artworks and they’re only allowed to be made by these types of people? And owned by these types of people? Because then what happens to the rest of us?

Do we live our daily lives… artless?

Gyimah-Brempong: Tarot requires vulnerability: a willingness to admit that you deeply want to know something, but don’t. Interacting with a deck isn’t the same as looking at a painting, or a suit of armor. There’s no placard that can explain it to you.

Bautista-Carolina: It is actually something that you read through your own self, and through your experiences, and through your lens, and through your culture, and through your values. That you have to translate the card through you in order to really understand it.

I think that’s, that can be scary.

Gyimah-Brempong: Scary, but sometimes very freeing. It all depends what story you’re trying to tell.

Alexander Chee: I’m giving the person I’m reading for a vision of their present. And the cards become a kind of masquerade ball for what’s already on their mind. So that whatever it is that they are both thinking about—or perhaps pushing away—can put on a costume and come out and say hello.

Gyimah-Brempong: That’s writer Alexander Chee. After we read his essay “The Querent,” we wanted him to talk to our host Camille, whose past experiences with tarot have been... interesting.

Camille Dungy: I remember when my friends—we were just out of grad school, and a bunch of them got really into the tarot, and did a Celtic cross layout. And, um, one of them just gasped. She just was terrified by, by what the cards revealed. And her mother came running in to say, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” And she pointed to the deck and she said, “DEATH, Mama! That’s the outcome, DEATH!”

And her mother sort of nodded her head and walked out of the room and said, “It usually is.” [Laughs]

Gyimah-Brempong: Camille’s not a tarot person. She says she worries about reading the cards wrong, or seeing what she wants to see rather than what’s actually there. So Alexander gave her a virtual reading. First step: choosing the right deck.

[Chee shuffles cards]

Chee: All of the decks have a different energy. Are you feeling pagan today, are you feeling apocalyptic, or are you feeling classic?

Dungy: I’m always feeling pretty apocalyptic, honestly. [Both laugh]

Gyimah-Brempong: Today’s deck is the Carnival at the End of the World Tarot. The cards have a beautiful harlequin print on the back, and are a little thicker than average. The images are surprising, and often kind of odd. Like, the Tower is a man made of houses. And there’s some cards made specifically for this deck. Normally, tarot has a major arcana and a minor arcana. This one also has the insubordinate arcana. One of them is a figure in a fur coat with the head of a bat. His name is Count Orlofsky. Alexander starts holding cards up to the camera to show them to Camille.

Chee: The Eight of Pentacles is this woman carrying like, loaves of bread with a puffin on her shoulder.

Dungy: I often bake with puffins.

Gyimah-Brempong: But as he starts to pull cards specifically for Camille, the ones that come up are mostly folks on a mission, like the Knight of Swords—

Chee: Someone who is setting off into battle.

Gyimah-Brempong: Or The Six of Swords—

Chee: Which is a card for a journey.

Gyimah-Brempong: And the Ten of Wands. In the Smith-Waite, the Ten of Wands depicts a figure struggling to carry this huge bundle of wands on his shoulder. they’re like the size of small trees. In this deck the Ten is a tall, hollow figure made of sticks. It’s on fire, burning on a bright green mound as its crown falls away in flames.

Chee: A definition of it that really helped me understand it was, turning a desert back into a forest. Like this kind of resurrecting something that has been laid waste. And the work that that calls up from someone is, of course, enormous and takes everything.

Gyimah-Brempong: And then The Empress pops up. In this deck she’s mysterious in a beautiful blue dress, with a crown of antlers and stars.

Chee: I think you and her have a thing. I think there’s, uh, I think this is you.

Dungy: When cards appear again and again, what sense do you make about that? When a card kind of keeps gravitating towards someone?

Gyimah-Brempong: Alexander says it’s the universe tugging at the hem of your sleeve, trying to get your attention. Okay, all the cards are out now.

Dungy: Make the story of my life, Alexander Chee.

Chee: [Laughs] The story of your present. Here we go.

Dungy: Ohh. Thank you.

Gyimah-Brempong: Using tarot as a narrative tool, Alexander weaves a story from the cards that’s pretty perfect for a conversation between poets, it marries the rushing Knight of Swords with the burning man and the mysterious Orlofsky.

Chee: That idea of like, lighting your way by setting fire to what you need to let go of is… I’ll think about that for a while. It’s such a beautiful image. That need for a kind of holy drunkenness, in a sense, where you’re letting yourself kind of get drunk on a possibility, get drunk on what needs to be healed as a way of fermenting the cure for it.

Gyimah-Brempong: After the reading, Camille asks The Question. How do you see the tarot as anything other than coincidence?

Dungy: It sounds to me like one of the things that seeing through the tarot helps you do is to see. Is this just like ‘pay attention differently’? Is that…?

Chee: Yes. That is true. And there is something that sometimes happens where you’ll notice in a particular situation, you’ll see the features of a card, and so it’s like the world becomes a deck that is reading itself to you.

Gyimah-Brempong: I don’t read tarot for other people. I’ve only ever been able to pull cards that feel true for me. With one exception. In 2015, a group of artists came together to make a deck called The Slow Holler Tarot. Mine wore in really easily, and has this smooth, familiar slip to it when I shuffle. Working with it feels like sitting down at the table of your most empathetic, no-nonsense friend. They serve you tea in a jelly jar and let you pour your heart out, then read you like a book, and send you on your way feeling... lighter, somehow.

The cards have this rich palette of black, white, deep red, and gold. But even though they share the same colors, they’re all very different in style. The Magician has a ton of tattoos, and looks almost collage. The Eight of Branches is like this upside down octopus with hands at the ends of its long arms. Kings are called Architects; Queens become Visionaries. The Empress in the Slow Holler is a card called The Kindred. It’s this warm, cozy cream color. And there’s a farmyard with a picnic basket, a clothesline, and two bears sleeping in a barrel next to a jug of iced tea.

All of the artists are Southern, queer, or both, and that’s intentional. Just like tarot, many people fail to see the beauty of the South. They miss my home’s potential as a site of fierce resistance and radical transformation. I wanted to hear from some of the artists: what was it like to remake a legacy in your own image? So I sat down with four of them, and I wanted to give you their stories in their own words.

Corina Dross: I remember at a very young age, working with the Rider-Waite tarot deck. And I remember not questioning where the deck came from, because it seemed so authoritative. It was hard for me to imagine it being made by humans in a certain historical context.

JB Brager: My name is JB Brager.

Dross: Corina Dross.

Nic Jenkins: Nic Jenkins.

Miranda Javid: My name is Miranda Javid. Each artist decided on the cards they made by this kind of really long email thread, I feel like? [Laughs.] And then, you know, everybody was like trading cards, and… a very small amount of chaos.

Dross: And so we got together when all of the images were ready and sat with each of them and thought about, ‘what is the story that this card is telling us?’

Brager: The card that I worked on was the Visionary of Vessels. And almost immediately I was like, ‘I need to draw a bathtub.’ I was just like spending as much time as possible in the tub.

And I was like, ‘all right: how can I share this process of healing that I’ve been going through that’s, like, very tied to water?’

Dross: I remember with The Devil card thinking a lot about the traditional meanings of it—which are so shaming, right? I know people who insist on reading The Devil completely against the grain, and who are like, ‘The Devil card is only ever about hot kinky sex.’ And I’m like, ‘you know, I’m not sure it’s just that? [Laughs.] There’s probably some more stories involved.’

But for me, The Devil card: it holds this thing that we fear.

Javid: Living in Los Angeles and saying, ‘I’m from North Carolina,’ it’s very common that the first sentence you hear back is, ‘oh my God, I could never live in North Carolina.’ Or, ‘is that super scary?’

Jenkins: I grew up in Walterboro, South Carolina, which is a rural area. Very humid. Very green. Also? Dusty. I didn’t feel especially proud to tell people I grew up in South Carolina because I felt like there was residual stereotypes that I didn’t want to deal with. I just wanted to be an individual.

Brager: There is like a real sense that if you’re from the South, in order to be queer or trans, or in order to be your authentic self, you have to leave that place. And that the South, especially the rural South, is not safe for queer and trans people. And that it’s irredeemable.

Javid: The deliberate Southernness of this deck is crucial. Southern culture has all this like, kind of rich history of… being a little bad in a good way. And like, you know, having a wink and a nod towards bathtub gin.

Jenkins: Everyone is from somewhere. So, I think in regards to a Southern identity, there are so many different narratives, so many different flavors of being.

Javid: It was part of the initial conceit that we were going to create a deck that specifically didn’t perpetuate some of those harmful stereotypes of gender roles, power structures.

Dross: Queer communities queer the tools they’re given. We have plenty of precedent for taking the… garbage ideas from dominant culture, and making them something that is more infused with playfulness and delight.

Brager: When you’re creating something that is collective, that you get to define, then you get to create the representation that you want and need.

Jenkins: I was maybe a little intimidated by the concept of a tarot deck. I thought it was, like, too special for me to even approach one. Or like I had to be initiated into some kind of a secret society?

Brager: It’s not a magic trick. It’s not a religion. [Chuckles]

Jenkins: You can take it to a coffee shop. You can read your tarot deck in traffic.

Brager: The folks that created the work for that deck may or may not be engaged with the art world. But every single card is a work of art.

Dross: I am profoundly grateful that the experiences I had of both powerful, meaningful friendship with people who weren’t in those worlds, and of personal disability, which made it impossible for me to be pushing, pushing, pushing on that level….

What brought me back to art was the idea of there being a group of people who wanted it from me, who were my friends. And since then, I’ve really held as sacred to me the idea of collaboration, and of community as being central to how I make art. And always holding the sense of: who is this for?

Why am I making this? And who is this for?

Gyimah-Brempong: One of the loveliest conversations I had about tarot for this episode was with historian Rachel Pollack. She told me about the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose major arcana cards live in The Met’s Watson Library. The cards feature illustrations that echo a massive real life sculpture garden that she built in Tuscany, called Il Giardino dei Tarocchi. Niki spent twenty years creating building-sized versions of tarot cards like Justice and The Magician. Colorful and mosaicked, these structures loom over the Italian landscape. Niki lived inside The Empress for many years. Which is fitting for an artist—The Empress is a card of creation.

Rachel was friends with Niki and once spent a night in the Empress herself. She told me it was like being a kid in a fantasy movie, transported to a place you’ve only ever read about. When you come back, the book—or the cards—are never the same because you’ve been to a place where tarot is the world. I thought a lot about what it meant to remake a world in that way. To see tarot as something that has room for you, and your altars, and your contradictions, and all of your friends. You can climb inside of it and let it change the way you see.

For The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, and this is Immaterial.

Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

This episode was produced by me, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, and Eleanor Kagan.

Our production staff also includes Jesse Baker, Eric Nuzum, and Elyse Blennerhasset.

And from The Metropolitan Museum: Sarah Wambold, Benjamin Korman, Rachel Smith, and Douglas Hegley.

This season would not be possible without Sofie Andersen.

Sound design and engineering by Kristen Muller. This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Fact-checking by Christine Baird.

The podcast is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

Additional support is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This episode would not have been possible without Suhaly Bautista-Carolina, Senior Managing Educator of Audience Engagement at The Met; Marco Leona, David H. Koch Scientist-in-Charge of Scientific Research; Holly Phillips, Collections Manager in Acquisitions at the Thomas J. Watson Library; Jessica Ranne-Cardona, Assistant Museum Librarian, at the Thomas J. Watson Library; and Maria Schurr, former Senior Departmental Technician at the Thomas J. Watson Library.

Special thanks to E. Henderson, Lauren Johnson, and Rachel Pollock.

To see all the tarot decks mentioned in this episode, from the collective to the apocalyptic, visit The Met’s website at

I’m Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong.