A Houston Artist Packs Justice, Humor, and Insight Into This “Neocolonial” Tarot Deck

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I haven’t messed with occult business since my teenage days with a Ouija board, for fear of riling fate. Recently, though, a box of tarot cards—the new Tarot Neocolonial de las Américas by Patrick McGrath Muñiz, a Houston artist whose work I have admired for a while—was burning a hole […]

I haven’t messed with occult business since my teenage days with a Ouija board, for fear of riling fate. Recently, though, a box of tarot cards—the new Tarot Neocolonial de las Américas by Patrick McGrath Muñiz, a Houston artist whose work I have admired for a while—was burning a hole in my desk, asking to be read.

After some clumsy shuffling, I followed Muñiz’s advice: I meditated on a question, divided the deck into three stacks, and drew one card from each for a simple three-card reading to divine my past, present, and future. I’d been struggling with work, and I wanted to know if I was on the right path.

I drew the Two of Swords first. This card is about opposing relationships, and Muñiz illustrates it as a meeting between the Aztec emperor Montezuma, the indigenous woman Malinche, and her lover, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. They’re in a stadium below a Coca-Cola-inspired billboard that reads “Enjoy Colonia-lism.” And, well, we know what happened to Montezuma with that. An ominous-looking card called the Tower came out next; it signals unexpected calamities and overblown egos. Muñiz depicts the structure as an air-traffic control tower whose top floor is toppling. Icarus falls from the sky beside it, while storm winds blow palms and topple power lines in the background. The third card looked more pleasant. I drew the Empress, who represents abundance and nourishment. Muñiz portrays her as the Habsburg dynasty’s Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria. She looks placid, sitting on a throne upholstered with McDonald’s golden arches as she holds a decadent ice-cream cone with one hand and pets a calf with the other.

Even before I deciphered what all of that might mean to me, I could see that this was no ordinary tarot set. Muñiz’s deck offers an entertaining 78-card dive into the period when the Old and New Worlds collided. The witty drawings on his cards convey an ambitious narrative, expressing five hundred years of Latin American history in a way that provokes questions about social-justice issues, economic struggles, and climate change as vestiges of colonialism.

Muñiz, who is 47, has long incorporated tarot imagery into the heady visual vocabulary of his satiric figurative paintings and retablos, which also draw from Spanish colonial iconography, mythology, and corporate logos. He relates those elements to his bicultural heritage as the son of an Irish American father and a Puerto Rican mother who divorced when he was four. Although he was born in New York, he grew up with his mother in Puerto Rico. “It’s something I’m really mindful about—this Spanish-English, South-North duality of my identity,” he said when we spoke in June.

Because tarot originated in northern Italy in the early fifteenth century and was popularized in France in the sixteenth, a lot of tarot card imagery is based on European Renaissance culture—the era when Europeans began colonizing the New World. “The language of tarot is intertwined with divination, like it or not. Some people think it’s baloney,” Muñiz said. “But at the same time there’s this connection with the past. It steps into the future and has a hold onto the past, bringing those two timelines together. That’s very much in tune with my work.” The tarot trump cards, called the Major Arcana, contain an “encyclopedia of archetypes” that he finds useful as a painter. “You have the Pope, the Emperor, the Empress, but they’re really mother and father figures,” he said. “And you get all sorts of other symbolic, esoteric implications . . . and a glimpse of how society operates.”

He had wanted to design a personal deck for some time, thinking it could be a versatile format for a sketchbook that would enable him to shuffle ideas for his paintings. The project gained steam in 2016, after he found an old tarot deck at home in Puerto Rico, wrapped in plastic and tucked at the back of a bookshelf. While Muñiz is skeptical about using tarot cards for fortune-telling—he prefers to think of them as tools for advice about the present—he does believe things happen for a reason. Finding his old cards, he remembered how his friend Cesar bought the deck one afternoon when they were teenagers, on their way to a movie. When Cesar’s car broke down on the way home, Muñiz’s friend was convinced the tarot deck was bad luck. He sold it to Muñiz for five bucks.

“It was a fond memory,” Muñiz recounted. Beyond that, he can’t explain why he brought the old deck back with him to Houston. Then, exactly a year later, Hurricane Maria blew through Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The storm destroyed the home and his studio. Vandals took what little was salvageable before he and his siblings could get back. Muñiz still regrets leaving behind family heirlooms and most of his art.

What he did have, however, was his old deck. As he began studying it, he realized it was the now-classic 1JJ Swiss Tarot design from 1968—the first of many decks published by U.S. Games Systems, the nation’s largest publisher of tarot cards. “It was their first deck and also my first deck,” Muñiz said. “I told them my story and they fell in love with it.” The company’s owner encouraged him to pursue his own card-design project as more than a personal exercise. U.S. Games released Tarot Colonial de las Américas in May.

Following tarot standards, Muñiz’s deck contains 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards in four suits (cups, swords, wands and coins, each numbered from ace to ten, plus the four court cards of Knave, Knight, Queen, and King). The titles are in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French. The 92-page booklet that explains each card’s imagery comes in handy. Along with familiar figures—say, Christopher Columbus, who appears on the Two of Wands, and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who are pictured on the Two of Cups—Muñiz introduces dozens of fascinating lesser-known characters. He models the Hanged Man, one of the Major Arcana cards, as a volador, a Mesoamerican dancer who would have performed spiritual rituals swinging upside down from a pole. The Nine of Swords card illustrates the story of the sixteenth-century priest Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who documented Spanish atrocities against the Taíno people. Several cards hold self-portraits of Muñiz as a painter or a child. The important El Loco card depicts Cesar, the friend who introduced him to tarot when they were teens.

Sly anachronisms, a signature of Muñiz’s paintings, also abound. Just one example: on the Four of Swords, the seventeenth-century feminist writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz uses a laptop. Bleak but comical landscapes that symbolize U.S. government policies, the military-industrial complex, and environmental crises fill the card backgrounds, which are further busied by images of helicopters, planes, space shuttles, and UFOs (a shorthand for “illegal aliens”). Muñiz wanted his deck to be meaningful but fun. “It would be so depressing to be doing a reading and all that shows up is death, destruction, and abuse,” he said. “No one wants to read something like that. . . . Comedy gives it a bit of relief, and you’re able to assimilate it a little bit more.”

While the market for tarot cards stretches wide, decks with a sociopolitical agenda are rare. Of the 150 different divination decks stocked at the Magick Cauldron, Houston’s largest metaphysical supply store, only two have aims similar to Muñiz’s, said store manager Brian Richardson: the Pride Tarot, which is inspired by the achievements of the LGBTQ movement, and the Hoodoo Tarot, which honors the heritage of rootworkers (folk magicians whose traditions are derived primarily from Native American and African American practices).

What would Muñiz want a confrontation with colonialism and climate change to look or feel like in a reading? “It depends on your views. Are you a pessimist or an optimist? In the end, you’re going to project the meaning onto the cards. It’s highly subjective, which is very much the story of politics at this moment in time,” he said. “That’s why, for me, it’s so important to keep it multilayered. It’s not about one thing; it’s about a multiplicity of things. This is really about choice and finding your own meaning to the cards.” Every card contains positive and negative qualities, he noted.

I can see how tarot reading could become addictive. As dire as the Tower appeared, evoking my present situation at the center of my spread, it also made me laugh. What a metaphor. The scene pretty well summed up the agitation and confusion in my head. In fact, it seemed prescient in multiple ways, also suggesting the chaos the Supreme Court has unleashed in recent weeks and the literal state of my home, which is torn apart right now for a construction project. Thankfully, the calm Empress was offering up dessert on the “future” position card: Calm will prevail, she told me. At least that’s the way I chose to interpret it.

Tarot enthusiasts as far-flung as Korea, Japan, Spain, and Brazil have been sharing their readings with Muñiz’s cards on social media, evidence that his project is introducing his art to a more global audience. “I did not expect that,” he said. He loves having conversations with users of his deck. “The most important thing about this is to be open-minded and to listen to what these traditions can teach you. Not that we have to believe everything . . . or embrace it totally,” he said. “But I learn from it, and it gives me some inspiration for my work.”

He’s not abandoning his fine-art practice. Muñiz’s work is on view until January in group shows at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Albuquerque Museum, and he’s preparing for solo shows in Santa Fe and Philadelphia next year. His next card project will be a Lenormand deck, a simpler tradition with just 36 cards. “It’s more in tune with the personal than with the transcendental, collective history of humanity. It’s a perfect [vehicle] to explore issues of me growing up in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’m just getting started with this.”

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