Everybody dreads getting the Death card.
When Casey Zabala of Wanderers Tarot reads my fortune at JOY Gallery in the Bayview, she lays out five cards in a compass spread, with one in the center and four representing the cardinal directions. The odds of Death appearing out of the 22 Major Arcana are less than one in four, but it’s the last card she turns over — in the north, which represents home. Dammit.
This is not the typical Grim Reaper, though. For one thing, it’s not labeled “Death” or “La Morte,” but “L’Arcane San Nom,” or “The Nameless Arcana,” and the figure is Human Rights, or H.R. from the hardcore punk band Bad Brains. His scythe is as long as his body, there are crowned heads on the ground around him, and he appears to wear a hood that extends from his vertebrae and ends in a hand.
The Nameless Arcana is only one of the arresting images included in King Khan’s THE BLACK POWER TAROT, along with Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry (The Tower), Eartha Kitt (The Justice), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (The World), and Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 together representing Judgment.
Best known as a musician and frontman of King Khan and the Shrines and The King Khan & BBQ Show, Arish Ahmad Khan is a musician from Montreal who lives in Berlin (and who is currently on tour). He’s a trained tarot reader, so this is no exercise in dilettantism — and the Black Power theme could not be more timely. As befitting a mercurial persona prone to onstage antics like sticking his tush in Lindsay Lohan’s face, the images are by turns impish and eerie, with more than a few intense stares. Suspended by a sneaker with his arms crossed behind his back, Tupac represents the Hanged Man, but Nina Simone as the Empress reclines in a high-backed chair, holding a scepter and a shield emblazoned with an eagle. In a blurb, Khan gives his reason for choosing her: “She was certainly one woman who can be described as an eruption.”
Richard Pryor is the Fool, “the card that represents absolute freedom and no limits” and “the beginning of the path of illumination,” in Khan’s words. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, most famous for the proto-shock-rock song “I Put a Spell on You,” represents the lascivious Devil, because “his music was soaked in wild sexuality, loads of nonsensical mumbling, and sometimes pure, freaked-out horror.” Stylistically, it’s the most unusual card, traceable to no particular mythology. Hawkins has bat wings, blue antlers, and claws. He carries a torch and wears a blue bathing costume that has a woman’s face on the abdomen. His genitals are exposed. He has breasts, with eyes for nipples, and eyes on his knees. He’s flanked by two lesser demons, bipedal goats tethered together by their collars.
A crowd-pleaser second to none, Tina Turner shows up as Strength (here, “La Force”) wearing a blond wig like the one from the “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” video, and she appears to be subduing a lion by glaring at it, straddling it, and wrenching out its tongue. The captured beast wears a Star of David around its neck and looks none too pleased.
“Tina Turner might be my favorite, I’ve always loved her,” says gallerist Heather Rosner.
She claims that some manifestation of celestial powers helped the show come together at her two-year-old gallery.
“I think there has to be some kind of cosmic connection,” she says, noting that for a while at least, THE BLACK POWER TAROT looked unlikely to come to fruition in spite of being politically timely. “I don’t think it would have just happened.”
Rosner says that Khan, who is on tour and couldn’t be present for Saturday’s opening, worked with Game of Thrones designer Michael James Eaton and with the 87-year-old Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom Khan considers his spiritual guru, to create the tarot deck. (The design recalls the Tarot de Marseille, to which Jodorowsky was connected by way of Philippe Camoin, an heir to the last of the printers in that Southern French city.) Jodorowsky’s pedigree as a latter-day occultist is secure: Among his works are surrealist Christian allegory The Holy Mountain, the acid western El Topo, and an aborted attempt at capturing Frank Herbert’s Dune on screen, the script for which was at one point going to produce a 14-hour film.
At 195 cm by 100 cm, or more than 3 feet by 6 feet, the pieces aren’t quite as massive as that, but they’re just shy of life-size. Tarot cards are almost always larger than a standard deck of playing cards, but these dimensions evince a power beyond the simplicity of the line work.
And my drawing the Death card isn’t so inauspicious after all. Rather than symbolizing one’s inherent demise, it really announces a change — or “the ending of a process,” as Zabala says. “It’s not because it’s a tragic ending. Something’s drawing to a close because it needs to. Something’s on the horizon.”
Plus, I got the World at the center — which Zabala reassuringly called “very affirming” — the Magician (early 20th-century magician Black Herman) in the west to represent willpower, and the Hermit (jazz musician Phil Cohran, of Sun Ra’s Arkestra) in the east. He was inverted, suggesting a need for greater solitude. And in the south, the realm of creativity and passion, I got the Lover — which might be better termed “Lovers,” as the auspicious card depicts James Brown, his bowtie undone, standing between Etta James and Irma Thomas while Cupid prepares to shoot them from above with an arrow.
THE BLACK POWER TAROT Through Dec. 19 At JOY Gallery, 4913 Third St., 415-894-9821 or joygallerysf.tumblr.com