In early January, I finally got to hold the stunning Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot deck in my eager hands. Courtney Alexander is not only the creator, but also the artist and writer of the deck, which is no small feat! In October 2016, I backed her deck on Kickstarter and have been following her progress on Instagram since then. The deck was released in December 2017 and sold out. Courtney is now working on self-publishing a 2nd edition.
Dust II Onyx is not just another trendy indie deck, as the art is symbolic and connected to the African diaspora, America’s dark history of slavery, decolonization, ancestral healing and giving marginalized people of colour a voice. It’s not often that I get to connect with another indie deck creator that inspires me to rise up and embrace my sacred activist. Courtney doesn’t know this, but she has inspired me to start interviewing other indie deck creators, especially women.
Your journey as an artist includes a Bachelors in Studio Art from the University of South Florida (USF). What originally sparked your interest in art? Did you always know growing up that you wanted to be an artist?
Growing up, I did not always see myself as an artist. I maybe thought of myself as a creator, in general. I played the keyboard and hand bells, yes that is a real instrument. I also had dreams of designing clothes and would draw different outfits that I imagined myself wearing. I would write poems and songs. I would write down different inventions that I thought about. In general, I was always a child that had a fertile imagination, which was probably due to the amount of time I spent alone as an awkward kid. However, the majority of my life from my teens to my mid-twenties I spent pursuing my interests in graphic design.
In 2013, before enrolling at USF, I had plans to go into the advertising program. While pursuing my associates degree, I decided to take an art class. At the time, I thought of it as a way to improve my design skills and a way to become better at designing in general. But, I fell in love with the process of painting and drawing while there. So, when I researched undergraduate degrees and compared curriculums, I decided that going into the studio arts program would make me a better creator over all and lead to me becoming more of a creative director, and not just a designer.
It’s funny, because even after enrolling in the studio arts program, I was not there to be an artist. It was after my 1st year that I began to see the range of possibilities of my creativity. I realized that I had something to share and something to say through my visual art. So, through all of the sculpture and painting classes, I worked to push the boundaries of what I was able to do and to improve as much as possible. My work began to change and take on its own style once a professor of mine discovered a collage that I had thrown to the side as a failure. He encouraged me to present that work as well as creating other pieces with it, which ultimately led to my work being recognized during a important student exhibition.
By the end of my time at USF, I had participated in several art shows, including my own solo exhibition, and had won a scholarship for the series of work that I created. Because of the nurturing community that I experienced in University, my art was able to develop into what it is today and I definitely don’t believe I would have even been as confident as a mixed media artist, if I had not had those experiences. I did not go into the University seeing myself as an artist but, I definitely emerged as one by the time I completed my degree in 2015.
The Dust II Onyx Tarot deck originally started out as an exploration of identity for you. I’ve been following your work for awhile now, I have been witnessing you hold space for marginalized groups and people of colour, in particular women. Where does that drive to help others come from?
My desire to inspire and help others has always been in me. I have this particular memory as a child in elementary school on the school bus. I was looking out the window and distinctly remember a tunnel dialog I had where I affirmed that I would help young women and adult women one day. I’m not exactly sure where that thought came from or what sparked it, but it always stuck with me.
Throughout all of the career goals I’ve had, I always imagined myself using whatever success I attained to open a path for others to emerge. I think this is because I needed to believe that the harsh things I experienced had to be for reason. That despite the abuses and heartbreak, I was able to still smile from day-to-day because I was supposed to do something important with those experiences. I think that that is where my deep compassion for marginalized people comes from. Not only from understanding my own history and identity as a black woman, but also as an individual whose faced so much discrimination and dehumanization due to living at the intersections of fat, black, queer, and woman.
Your deck is sacred healing tool, especially for African Americans, who want to connect to their ancestral roots. What words of wisdom do you have for those that haven’t yet started or have just begun their journey to heal from oppression and colonization?
I believe decolonization starts with personal healing. No matter how many books you read, and no matter how you may intellectualize the world. You move and experience this world through your spirit. If there are parts of you that are still guarded this becomes very difficult to even make space for the word: colonization. So developing that compassion for yourself first of all is paramount. Because that will also allow you to forgive yourself for the person you are now and that’s working the be a better person than the future. And, that in turn will also lead to you being able to take responsibility for what you bring into the world. Not just a shallow idea of what you contribute to the world, but in your energy, in the way you navigate, in the way you advocate for yourself and others.
What impact and influence do you want your deck to have on people that don’t self-identify as belonging to a marginalized group and/or as a person of colour?
This is an interesting question because, to be honest, I never thought about what this deck could mean for them. Because my intention has been to decenter the eurocentric / white / hetero / Christian gaze as much as possible. So it would be disingenuous to say I “want” a particular outcome from their use of this work. What I would expect in the very least is an acknowledgement of what blackness means to the spirit. That people experience Blackness as universal spirit and love for once. That it be respected and honored in the way it deserves. And that whatever they gain from their experience with this deck not lead to more colonization of these energies. Instead it should inspire us all to appreciate and turn to what we’ve already inherited for growth and empowerment. Even if what we’ve inherited comes with a painful history, that we all do the work of ancestral healing on a collective level. That even means facing the darkest parts of our heritage, so we can openly embrace the spiritual legacies we’ve inherited.
Now diving into your gorgeous deck, I noticed that the Faces (the court cards) are named Lil (Page), Young (Knight), Papa (King), Mama (Queen). The Lil and Young cards have the eyes of influential African Americans, but the Papa and Mama cards have the eyes of one individual and the features of another. Would you be able to share how that came about?
This idea came about intuitively, just as the majority of this work has. I remember working on Mama Gourd, who at the the time I chose to be represented by Solange Knowles. I was inspired by her cover art work for A Seat at the Table, which had just been released. By the time the card was completed, she had become Mama Staff, with the eyes of Nicki Minaj. It was like the card took on a energy of its own. And that’s when I realized that I needed to be intentional in those who I incorporated into the Faces.
As I thought of each person, I looked up their astrological information and it always lined up with the card that they were meant to be. It truly feels as if I had been guided towards featuring very particular people.
For the Face cards, you delve into the astrological charts of the African Americans featured, which is unique as I haven’t see that in any other Tarot deck before. How did astrological charts influence your art and interpretation of the Face cards?
As I mentioned, the astrological features in each person’s chart confirmed the energy of the card that they were embodying. This gave greater complexity to the usual interpretation of the court cards. In my experience, the court were usually interpreted in a somewhat narrow way. So when trying to understand the energy of that card during a reading I would sometimes be tripped up. Digging into the astrological charts of each person really helps to break down the different ways the elements in those personalities manifested and interacted with other elemental energies. By telling their stories and seeing their life blue print, we can now understand the court cards in a broader sense.
As you were working on the Dust II Onyx Tarot deck, you start your own publishing company, Black & Sage. Can you share about what your hopes are for your publishing company?
I see Black and sage as a publishing platform that brings a variety of creators together, who want to produce innovative high quality products of varying types that will not only heal their communities, but be a part of this shift that’s happening in the world right now. To bring these wonderful story tellers out of the shadows and in to the lab so to speak. I definitely see many collaborative works coming through this company where traditional publishing ideas can be reimagined in beautifully innovative ways.
Is there anything you would like share?
Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot 2nd Edition is available for Preorder! Meeting the funding goal by March 23 will allow me to go to print sooner and have the dexks available this Summer. Even if you don’t desire to purchase a deck, you can contribute (in $5 increments) to the sponsorship fund to distribute decks to non-men people of color in need.
I will also be launching on Product Hunt soon and would love your support by joining in the conversation on launch day. You can add me at http://producthunt.com/@dust2onyx to receive notification when we go live.
Thank-you to Courtney for connecting and sharing her soul’s work. You can learn more about Courtney’s deck via her website, Facebook, and Instagram.