Post by Juan Carlos Castillo, CLACS MA Candidate
The evening of October 27th, CLACS hosted the event “A Conversation with the Creator of Djatawo, Haiti’s First Comic Book Superhero,” with Anthony Louis-Jeune (Aton). This event was co-sponsored with the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York. The intimate conversation with Aton held at CLACS room 404, which included live-sketching by the artist, was attended by a diverse group of 23 people which included Kreyol students, comic book fans, and members of the Haitian community.
It took a whole night to shave his body completely. His eyelashes were the only hair he didn’t remove. And there he was, inside of a pyramid made of wood, tranquil and meditating before his performance. He then came out, silently and peacefully, holding a bronze Egyptian sun disc. He walked through the room, approaching all those present and gave each of them tiny golden hands that were embedded in the medallion. After that, the performance was over.
This was Anthony Louis-Jeune, whom back then was a visual arts senior undergrad student at the Altos de Chavón School of Design, introducing the faculty and fellow students present to the first Haitian superhero, Djatawo.
Aton –as Anthony calls himself– created Djatawo as a comic superhero and, as a way of presenting him, personified this Haitian character. The repartition of the golden hands that where embedded in the sun disc played as an exemplification of the sun philosophy upon which this superhero was conceptualized: like a sun, giving to everyone without expecting anything in return.
As part of his undergraduate visual arts degree, Aton had to produce a final project. He then thought of something that could help his country, Haiti. He didn’t have to think too much about it. As he expressed in the interview, he was totally convinced that what his country needed was a superhero: “I was thinking in something that could help my country. I was then thinking in a superhero.”
Right after he graduated, Djatawo’s comic stories were starting to be published in Port au Prince on a weekly basis.
The stories tell of current social, human, and environmental issues in Haiti. Trash problems, noise contamination, greed and homophobia are some of the topics portrayed in Djatawo. Aton stated that the aim of the comic is to encourage readers to take a different vantage point about certain problems and to create awareness about these neglected issues.
But how does this Caribbean superhero tackle these problems?
Well, Djatawo is different from other well-known comic superheroes. He doesn’t have any special strength, weapons, or bellicose artifact. “In contrast with other superheroes, Djatawo is more spiritual, because he believes in the power that all human has inside,” Aton explained.
Djatawo, for instance, has a sun disc which he aligns with his chakra in order to sensibilize people. Moreover, although his white uniform has signs associated with voodoo –an African diasporic religious practice common in Haiti– these glyphs are there for representing a Haitian aesthetic, not because Aton or Djatawo are practitioners. Also, Djatawo’s sun disc has a cemí, which is a figure representative of ancestral spirits of the Taino people, the indigenous people that lived in Haiti’s territory and througout the caribbean before European colonization. Aton stressed that for him it is important to have African and Taino elements present as a way to celebrate Haitian ethnic heritage.
While he was a student, Aton always included Haitian ethereal elements in his works and ideas. This always called the attention of professors and other students. Frank Lara, a Dominican plastic artist, stated that in the Dominican Republic his works were considered very unique and compelling because of the inclusion of Haitian and Taino spiritual aggregates.
Furthermore, the name ‘Djatawo’ comes from ‘jah’ and ‘tao’, which mean ‘god’ and ‘path’ respectively.
At the beginning, the superhero had his creator’s name, Aton. He named the character after himself because the superhero, in a sort of way, is a mirror of himself. But after considering the recommendations of a friend, Djatawo was established as the new name.
Aton grew up in Haiti, and since he was a little kid he has been engaged with comics. He has read comics from the United States, Europe and Japan. Batman (US), Asterix (French), Fan Goku (Japanese) and Tintin (Belgian) are some of his favorite. As a child, he would to go to the library in search of all these comics. All were written in French and English, something that he considered deterred children given that, in Haiti, French is only spoken by a minority. The majority of the country speaks Haitian Kreyol.
For this reason, he published Djatawo in both French and Haitian Kreyol.
In this regard, Winnie Lamour, founder of the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York and current instructor at CLACS (#KreyolAtNYU), despised the fact that in Haiti most school teach in French, despite the vast majority of Haitians not being francophone. According to the estimates made by the Matenwa Community Learning Center, around the 95% of Haitians are not fluent French speakers.
Lamour agrees that comic strips in Haitian Kreyol help reach a big number of Haitians that might be able to read in Kreyol but not in French. She also highlighted that one of the reasons Haitian Kreyol is socially loathed is because nohing is published in Kreyol. For this reason, Lamour praised Aton’s initiative in creating Djatawo. Moreover, as an educator, she explained that comics are a good learning tool for kids.
In other aspects, Lamour remarked that besides fostering the use of Kreyol, Djatawo gained her admiration because it “provides authentic Haitian urban stories that can very accurately represent Haitian life.”
Lamour, who is a Haitian cultural agent in New York, hopes Djatawo gets more outlets to vindicate the Haitian image.
Currently, Djatawo has been published in Haiti. In 2014, Aton made a book that collected all Djatawo stories. The book was presented at that year’s Port au Prince Book Fair. Also, the book has an English translation that has been published in New York and a Catalonian version that is now being edited, soon to be published in Catalonia, Spain.
Aton’s future plans foresee a new Djatawo edition in which the superhero comes to New York, just as Aton, who moved to the city a year ago to pursue a graduate degree at the Parsons School of Design. In addition, he decided to create a new superhero that will be Djatawo’s best friend. This new character will be a Dominican character named Valiente, which means ‘courageous’ in Spanish. Aton hopes that, with Valiente, he could spread a message among the new generations of Dominicans and Hatians and foster friendship between these two nations that have been antagonized for generations. In the end, this is what Djatawo does.