Friday, July 27, 2007

Old Gypsy Project

My interest in the history of visual culture and my own practice as an illustrator converge quite a bit. This project is based on a deck of fortune telling cards I found in an antique shop in Naples, Florida near the end of 2006. Whitman Publishing, of Big Little Books fame, produced a deck of "Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards" in 1936-37. There's plenty to say about them, but for present purposes I have begun to rework the deck from a more contemporary point of view while retaining some of the period sensibility. The color scheme of the original involves a key drawing in black with orange and green, with variations to create four suits: hearts, diamonds, balls, and acorns. I have assumed that basic scheme but added a complimentary color pair of yellow and blue. The space pilot is a new card; the Indian card appears in the original deck (some of which I will show in a later post). The original Indian card has a whiff of the cartoon, and features a peace pipe and a headdress.

The representation of various groups is a subtheme in the Whitman deck, and in many commercial images from the 1930s. The "Gypsy" deck includes a particularly heinous actor card which features two characters in blackface. They will not appear in my deck. The stoic warrior American Indian is of course a stereotype as well, but a more complex one. In this case the historicist quotation of the period style references a time of shifting ideas about Indians and the West--developing tourism and the promotion of national parks, the birth of the film Western, and a budding sense of tragedy about what befell the native population. I would contrast that context with the unambiguous hostility of the Jim Crow South to blacks, or the racialist Japanese monster caricatures of the WW2 years. More recently the use of the term "Gypsy" has given rise to objection. People in the academy tend to be extremely aware of these things, which can result in self-policing to excess.

One of the things that I actually like about work that appears in the popular sphere--that aspires to find a commercial niche--is the general lack of cultural positioning of a certain kind. For both good and ill, commercial images display the terms of agreement between buyer and seller in a given culture at a particular moment.

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