Interview: Courtney Alexander, creator of the Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot Deck

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Temperance, Strength, and The World from the Dust II Onyx Tarot

I fell in love with the Dust II Onyx deck at first sight. There’s no way to describe the sound that came out of my mouth when I laid my eyes on the card samples so lovingly brought to magic by Courtney Alexander, the divinely gifted artist and creator of the Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot Deck. I felt it was imperative that I got to know more about this magical Black woman rendering magic from ancestral wisdom and shadow work. I’m beyond ecstatic that she so openly obliged.

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Getting right to it, tell us about yourself!

Well, I’m an artist and mommy to a beautiful kitty named Bella. My family affectionately refers to her as my ‘fe-lion’ (sheís 14 pounds, full-figured like me). I’m also quite the geek. I love animation of all kinds, especially anime. So as you can imagine, I’ve always been considered the weird one. As a kid I grew up reading and drawing a lot. I also played the piano through up until middle school and I was in hand bells. I was the bass bell player. My hand bell picture will never see the light of day.

So art for me has always been an integral part of my life and being. As a kid I didn’t see myself as an ‘artist’ per se, but I definitely recognized my creative abilities. I was also very purpose driven. I always knew that I wanted to bring change in the world in some way. I have this clear memory of me on the bus in elementary school, looking out the window. I had all of these thoughts in my mind but I remember hearing myself say ‘you’re going to help a lot of women with your story.’ I also had this big desire to be on Oprah. I would have ideas, invent things, write stories, and come up with ways I could contact her. Now that I’m older, I understand now that it was simply an expression of my desire to have a large platform and to effect change. Oprah at that time of my life was my biggest example of that. Now life is unfolding in such a way that it is actually real, well not the Oprah part lol. But this feeling that I can now start contributing to the world in an empowering way.

How did you come to art as a form of expression and healing?

It actually was not until about 3-4 years ago. Most of my creative focus has been in graphic design. I started when I was in my teens, designing Myspace profiles and taught myself. I’ve freelanced for roughly 10 years now. But over time the work felt unfulfilling. I had returned to school around 24 and during that time I took some drawing classes. It felt so good to now only learn how to refine my self expression, but that I actually had something to express period. By the time I finished my Associates I had created my first series of paintings and submitted them to the student Juried Exhibition. From there I was hooked and decided to forego the advertising program and go to the University of South Florida College of Fine Arts. (which is a wonderful program by the way)

During my time at USF my entire world expanded. I began to learn more about art history. Which completely changed my understanding of our development as a collective, as well as my own personal views on spirituality. I was exposed to all of these wonderful contemporary artists, my favorite being Wangechi Mutu. Her work inspired me so much and showed me the power of free expression. That art wasn’t just about beauty and aesthetics. It is deep and healing in so many ways, yet grotesque and magical. Performance artist Marina Ambramovic also moved me. The vulnerability that she displayed in efforts to test the human consciousness made me want to confront society as well.

So my art began to shift. My first solo exhibition ‘Overload’ dealt with clichés surrounding fatness. I had sculptures, installations, video and paintings that were all titled with common phrases I heard. ‘More Cushion for the Pushin’, ‘Chub Rub’, and my personal favorite ‘Venus Pudica aka Fat Upper Pussy Area (FUPA)’.

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More Cushion for the Pushin, by Courtney Alexander

Since then my work has continued to evolve. I injected my figure into archetypes of art history. It’s amazing how the context of a work can change once a fat black female form is inserted. I also played around more with material and grew into collage, making work such as ‘Monkey Wash’. Ceramics also became a fun medium for me, so I created ‘Debbie’ and ‘Joi’. Named after the beautiful women from the movie Next Friday. At the time I was studying the Sande Society and their masquerades.

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Joi (sculpture) and Big Bitch Sprinkles (back right)

From my understanding, they are a secret society of women and the only one to have masquerades. Throughout the rest of the continent masquerades are performed by men. The Sowei mask is worn during the right of passage ceremonies and the Gonde mask is her antithesis. Regardless of the Gondeís status as the wild sister, they both understand each other. They are still both ngafa spirits and considered far above ordinary human beings. That really spoke to me as a black woman dealing with the ideal of respectability and this need to be a particular type of black woman. We are all still divine despite our differences and we all deserve to own our divinity in whatever way we choose.

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Wrechin Off and Monkey Wash by Courtney Alexander

What drew you to the tarot as a form of divination?

For awhile I was afraid of tarot. There was this sermon by John Hagee when I was younger where he told a story of doing an exorcism on a woman who used tarot. So I had this very negative view and fear of the cards. As my spiritual beliefs evolved as an adult I opened myself up more. I began getting readings from a woman who did not use tarot. So that broke me into the world of the metaphysical. For a while I still would not deal with anyone who used cards. Over time I’d go and get a reading here or there, or go with a friend. I finally opened myself up to it completely when I decided to download a tarot app. That really helped demystify the cards and allowed me to see them as the wonderful tools of understanding that they are. For me tarot is like speaking in another language. It’s the language my intuition likes to communicate through. The art and history is beautiful and my use of tarot has helped me embrace myself as an intuitive woman. Now I just needed a deck whose artwork connected to me in a more profound way.

How do you feel your many identities meet, push up against, or vibe with the current tarot landscape?

I would at this point in my life describe myself as fat, black, queer, and divine. There isn’t a deck out there to my knowledge that expresses this freedom that I feel within myself. I definitely have an appreciation for the quality of imagery I see in decks such as the Wild Unknown and Fountain Tarot. I definitely see them as having a place in my own collection. However, I needed to see ME in a deck. I wanted a deck that pushed past surface meaning for me. That drew me into a deeper place in my subconscious and I had yet to find one that did.

What card(s) in tarot do you feel most affinity for?

The Empress is my birth card. I have a love/hate relationship with the Hermit. I really appreciate the Hermit’s depth and fearlessness. We see him as going to be alone. But he is essentially the Fool, who has now gained enough wisdom to go off further into the unknown. He is unafraid and willing to face whatever is necessary to seek the truth within. So instead of the external jump into the world the Fool takes, the Hermit is jumping into the world within. Either way you look at both worlds are full of wonders to discover.

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The Empress from the Dust II Onyx Tarot

Tell us about the creation and birth of the Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot Deck?

The moment leading up to the birth of this deck was quite an experience. I had a stressful summer, lost my job and was in an overall anxious and depressed state. The night before I lost my job, I went to bed as normal. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking someone was in my apartment. Once I realized there wasn’t anyone there I attempted to go back to sleep. Long story short, I ended up having a lucid dream where I was still in my bedroom. I heard noises again and when I got up to investigate a shadow figure was in front of me, who I read as being my nephew. When I went to turn on a light I felt this intense sensation hit my belly and I woke up with a yell. The following morning, I went to work completely shook and lacking sleep, as well as still feeling that same sensation. After I calmed myself down I went as normal, although something felt different. That evening I received a phone call telling me not to come back in. It was definitely stressful but I saw it as an opportunity to rest and see family. So I went home to visit and my nephew was there. We had this moment where we were dancing and singing together. Then he laid his head on my belly and he turned his face towards mine with his eyes closed. It was the most absolutely blissful look I had ever seen on anyone’s face. My mom noticed and tried to get her camera but then he snapped out of it. At one point I really wondered if I could be physically pregnant because of the dream and this experience. But looking back I truly believe that was the conception of Dust II Onyx.

While I was still home visiting my family I had two dreams in which I saw these black-on-black portraits. They were absolutely gorgeous paintings and would become the inspiration for the art behind Dust II Onyx. When I returned to my own place I began working. I had been chosen to participate in a local art show so I poured all of my energy into creating the major arcana. The cards flowed and the majority of them I created within two weeks. I worked night and day, but it felt so good. The show came and I was able to display about 18 of them. The day before I heard the deck name come to me while driving and when I tried to think of alternatives, my mind wouldnít let me even entertain it. So here we are now.

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The Hermit and The Sun from the Dust II Onyx Tarot

I immediately felt the presence of ancestral magic just from previews of the deck. How did ancestral presence influence its creation?

I think my ancestral spirit family has been informing my work especially as I began to work on my project with the Sande masks. I saw references to Elegba before I even knew who he was. In this work I referenced images from Grace Jones and Willow Smith to imagery of the Mursi, Masaai, and Asante people of West Africa. I think that is where the depth of the work comes in. It’s a marriage of so many lives. Like the way time overlaps from different planes. Thatís how I see them having come together.

What did you feel you wanted to keep, change, or outright ignore from the tarot tradition in your deck?

The only thing I wanted to stay true to was the structure in regards to majors and suits. Otherwise anything goes with the imagery. I do use some familiar references like the infinity in the Magician and Strength card. The rest is purely intuitive. Once I find myself drawn to adding a particular element to a card I may go and research its meaning to find that it actually does fit in with the spirit of the card.

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The Devil and Justice from the Dust II Onyx Tarot

What does it mean for you as a fat/black/queer woman to manifest the deck you’ve always looked to read from?

It is surreal and an honor to be a vessel. I don’t discount the work Iíve done to get to this point in my artistry. But I can’t deny the deeper influences that are not always conscious to me. So to see the work amazes me at times as much as it does those I share it with. It feels like fate to me and that I’m finally able to see my purpose with clarity I never knew before.

What are your plans for Dust II Onyx and how can we best support its fruition?

My plans for Dust II Onyx as a deck is to create a product that is premium, collectable and long-lasting. A deck that can be passed on and shared for decades to come. I can’t wait to see them worn and heavily used 15 years from now. I’d also like to create a tarot journal that not only features descriptions of each card, but space to write. The deck has so much in it that I’m sure many people will connect in a very specific way. So it’s like having a study tool, which speaks to my desire for practicality.

In regards to Dust II Onyx as an art series, I desire to see it in contemporary galleries along with other work. I another body of work I’m interesting in bringing to life once this deck is finished. I would like to combine them all into one big, divine solo exhibition of artwork.

The best way to support Dust II Onyx is by continuing to engage with me, I love community and sharing ideas. Of course, pre-ordering on Kickstarter will also go a long way.

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Anything else you’d like to add?

That I love you all and thank you so so much for supporting this project!

My heart is truly filled. <3

Support the Dust II Onyx Tarot Kickstarter here!

Support Courtney’s incredible art here!

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7 comments

  1. Donnalee says:

    This is beautiful. I wrote you, Courtney, using the email at your site but it bounced. Is there a better email? Thanks and best wishes, Donnalee

  2. Cassandra Snow

    SO SO SO excited to see Courtney and this amazing deck getting so much attention. I was so honored to speak to her on my own blog and this interview is SO SO good. Just, thank you everyone for all of this. <3 <3 <3.

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