UPDATE: I was so pleased to hear in February 2015 that Schiffer Publishing will be issuing the Diary deck at some point in a new edition with a book written by Ash. Only Ash knows the stories and symbolism of these cards and a book has needed to be written. Here and there I’ve picked up explanations from her on various forums, but a full book by her will be excellent I am sure.
Congratulations Ash from someone who has found your work deeply meaningful. It holds up, year after year, a beacon in the wilderness.
DIARY OF A BROKEN SOUL TAROT REVIEW
Judith A. Johnston ©2010 to 2012
AN OPPORTUNITY IN THE DARK
The decks that grab me are usually done by artists who are different in their artwork and outlook on life. I have found all of them to be exceptional people. The Diary of a Broken Soul by Ash Abdullah filtered into my awareness over a period of weeks and I became so intrigued with the artist, artwork, and the idea of using the deck as an impetus to writing poetry and creating art that I felt compelled to pass on my awareness in some way by writing a review. I started two years ago and it morphed into a personal study and artwork exploration. As well as this write-up I have over twenty daily studies so far with this deck which you can see under the Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down category.
Ash often talks about shadow work and the dark side of memory with regard to this deck but I do not see it as dark. Everyone has their own story and mine is one of the opportunity to learn from other artists. The art and symbolism might make you uncomfortable, but that to me is an opportunity. It is easy to remain open to something new, to let the conventions of the Rider-Waite deck go when exceptional work like this comes forward.
My perception is that certain decks become ghettoized with a singular label, meant only for the few that understand its peculiar depths. It is constricting for me to think of the Diary as a therapeutic deck only for shadow work, like it needs a commitment to darkness to be useable. The world is an interesting place, full of disparate cultures and people, so I had a ramble with this deck to see how it works.
THE EXPLORER IN THE DESERT
One card in this deck made such an impression on me that I want to talk further about it: XX – Redemption. If you look very carefully you can see the glowing object in the background is a needle, reflecting the biblical saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Ash apparently has many such subtle jokes or wordplay in the deck, some of it a bit more obscure but there if you can find it.
Three years ago I read a biography of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer and writer. Unlike many men in the British army or foreign service of the time, he treated other cultures and people with respect, learned many languages and dialects so he could communicate properly with people, and wrote extensively of his trips and observations.
He went on a Haj to Mecca circa 1849, disguised as an Arab called Mirza Abdullah. It would have meant his death if they had discovered he was British and a non-Muslim, but he wasn’t doing it for a lark, he genuinely wanted to connect to the people, and prove his skill as a linguist and adventurer, to learn about the culture and write about it, as he was endlessly curious. He even had himself circumcised so that he would not be detected as a non-Muslim. He was always testing himself, testing his language skills and cultural knowledge, wanting to become friendly with tribal rulers and learn their customs, and there is also a whiff of his skills being used by the British intelligence service of the time to gather information.
Burton was a very bright man, very learned in his own way, but was continually misperceived and gossiped about as being something he wasn’t. He was betrayed and lied about by several people and it hurt his career and reputation, he was always looking to repair that, to redeem himself and it never happened. The root word of redemption means “to buy,” but you cannot buy the life you want. There are shades in Burton’s life that remind me of of the typical Judgement card so much. Journeys, an awakening, releasing the past, the shadows that race with you, and the lingering sadness that some things cannot be corrected, you simply must live with them.
When I look at the picture on Ash’s card I think of Burton and “my shadow, my self,” because his intellect and lack of tact with people was partly responsible for his downfall. Camels are notoriously bad-tempered, tact is not something they know either. Burton sometimes rode horses but he more often rode camels on his journeys. He would have revelled in the desert at night, racing across the dunes on a camel in his muslin pirhan and billowing silk pants.
I LOVE THE SLOTS, AND SO WOULD CHARLES EAMES
I have read comments online about the slots on the card borders and how people are afraid to damage their cards by trying to build a house with them, or they find that the large borders interfere with the artwork and want to trim them off. I was immediately intrigued by the slots, because the cards look different latched onto each other and viewed from different angles. This tactile imperative is something artists know, but others often find baffling. Yeah, you want to mess around with the cards and build something. You want to touch them and group them and relate to them as dimensional forms. It is like installation art or performance poetry, the physical body enters into the drama and changes your perception, the act changes you.
The famous American designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray designed a deck of cards with slots back in 1952. The cards are still in print and sold in several stores including the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. People do not butcher the hell out of the Eames cards, they uphold and celebrate the vision of the creators, they build with the cards, they enjoy the concept. I prefer to uphold Ash’s work in a similar way. Cutting the borders off is a literal and philosophical reduction, a way of dumbing down or muting the deck. I want the full power of the concept, the vision. Apart from mutilating the indices of the cards, such ruin of the artist’s work and vision is appalling to me.
To demonstrate my delight in the slots I built a house with the cards, but I painted a piece of abstract art as a backdrop, so that against the striking black and white cards there are shots of colour as you move around and view the installation. It is hard to slap paint down and mix colours when you are uptight about perfectionism. I think this is one of the reasons I like using the Diary of a Broken Soul, it loosens me up. So this is the result of that, with some cardboard and leaf shapes pasted to the canvas ground for texture. I covered the entire canvas with black gesso first and then started laying down acrylic paint. I thought it would be neat to have a dragon peeking out as well, perhaps the dragon from the deck itself?
It is a meditation going up and a meditation coming down because you have to be careful taking it apart, you have to take care in both directions, a fact the mind balks at as it wants to dash off and check e-mail or have a cup of tea. No my mind, you are staying put and building and taking down cards. See the quiet discipline in that? See the possibilities. If ever there was an exercise to access the flow of the right side of the brain, this is it. I have rarely found something so enjoyable and uplifting.
The slots do become softer with use and easier to hinge together, so with care you can use this marvelous dimensional quality and still keep the cards in good condition. Think of it as a meditative act, building slowly, feeling the edges of the cards, viewing the tiniest of details in the cards, choosing specific cards to slot together or doing a random mix, always your hands involved with your eyes, the spatial joy of juxtaposition, the angular presence looming, casting shadows in the dimension of your mind. I was struck again by how fresh the artwork is when you pay attention to it while building.
PUZZLE IT OUT
One little exercise I often do with decks is to scan in cards and make a montage or picture to take into my digital jigsaw program. While I was waiting to receive this deck, I took some online scans and made an image so I could could become familiar with some of my favourite cards. You can also do such exercises with the covers of books related to tarot for fun. It really brings you into the images and allows you to see the details.
THE BEJEWELLED EMPRESS
The Empress is not a card I have liked since the fecund Earth mother larking about with her babies took over the archetype. An Empress is a ruler, steward of her people, compassionate, rational, and measured in her judgement of situations. She can be quite steely and is nowhere near the vacuity often depicted on so many Empress cards.
The Empress in the diary wears black, she knows how to rule and wield power. Her feminine attributes are expressed beautifully in the abundance of dark roses. It was those roses that piqued my interest in the deck. They became the basis for the necklace I created, and my abstract backdrop and poem.
The centre cabochon of the beaded pendant is based on The Empress roses. The beads I made are snippets from the roses on that card and the night sky in other cards. The beads with the vaguely Islamic writing were taken from the inscription on the box, a personal message that Ash sent. She says her special writing contains non-words that come to her. I thought that was inventive like a secret language, indecipherable, the echo of swirling Islamic calligraphy and sacred words across centuries. Stars, night, and sky messages inhabit the writing. I spelled out Jahanam in alphabet letters and also used pewter stars and black pewter skulls and wings in this.
To my regret, I do not have a camera or lighting to take decent photographs of jewellery but I did my best.
You can see the letters I special ordered for the necklace that spell out Jahanam in a quiet way. I used two “J” letters in the earrings too for my initials and nickname JJ.
A close-up of one of the skulls and the wings and the beads I made with the Empress Roses and Ash’s special writing.
THE GECKO OF JAHANAM
I started this other painting by smooshing some watercolours and throwing a bit of salt and plastic wrap on it. When it was dry, a part of the picture looked like a shadow so I put the Tokay gecko down there and used Prismacolor coloured pencils to fill him in. When I showed the picture to Ash she told me that when she lived in the United States for a time, she kept a gecko as a pet, so I found it an interesting meeting of minds that I would choose a gecko for the drawing. I admit to getting bored doing him up in a scientific, correct manner, so he grew some fantasy toes. For some reason he wanted lime green Popsicle toes; such is the changeability of reptiles. I used cold-pressed watercolour paper for this which is too pebbly but I went with that to give the gecko some texture. In reality they are smooth creatures but this is part of the fantasy, going with what comes up, much like with card decks. I saw a photograph on Ash’s site with some pheasant feathers and a skull with the deck and I liked it so much I incorporated elements resembling that into this illustration. The flowers were inspired by mehndi designs. My original artwork is 8 x 11 inches.
Update August 2013 – I have since punched up the shadows and contrast in this and taken it in to have it framed. It was originally inspired by the shadows of the random watercolour washes, so the shadows were never perfect, but this will be my first artwork ever to have framed, so I can thank Ash for that inspiration; it’s one of the benefits of this deck.
Years ago I wanted to be an artist but I find it hard to get past my controlling mind. Still, an exercise like this can help me move along in a forward direction. Creating is something I do often, so I am an artist in that sense, and I create with thread and fabric and jewellery and paper. I do all sorts of disciplines that are creative and use colour. Just not much painting and drawing, which was something I admired in Ash’s work and something I find inspiring, so I shall continue to work with that in mind.
I find Ash’s artwork so evocative that I like to make my own stories with it. However, the notes for each card of this deck are available on the web site, and were created by Davina Powell. I come up with my own reactions before checking Davina’s notes, but she has some interesting insights, and most importantly this is not some canned fortune telling, this is a real person with perception and knowledge giving her impressions which are fresh and interesting. I eventually copied the write-ups for each card into a Microsoft Word document that I keep on my computer and consult. You could do that and print it out if you feel that you need a book for the deck.
As the months have gone, I still find this to be a positive deck. In a sea of collage decks, there is the Diary of a Broken Soul, where an artist has taken her life and people and situations and created something of great benefit to others. This is truly a deck of value, and something you can work with off and on as needed, to draw out better qualities and effort in your own life. The human condition can be very unpleasant, with extraordinary burdens of worry and illness, but in the end you have a choice in how you meet that, and the Diary of a Broken Soul is an example of that courage in action.
Jahanam is the Islamic word for hell, but even in hell you are supported. Do you hear the wings?
That is the pleasure in a good deck like this: the inspiring creativity and hope of another human who understands effort and excellence, and the reality of the human soul.
Although the deck is no longer being sold, you can see images of it on this site Ash will occasionally release a few copies to raise funds for other projects, and she gives notice of this on tarot forums, so keep your eye out, you might be lucky.
Ash is still creating art and writing, coming up with new ideas, and realizing her dream of being a tattoo artist with a very impressive portfolio.