After re-emerging from a block of ice, Captain America made his triumphant return on an action-packed 1964 comic book. The Jack Kirby-illustrated The Avengers No. 4 issue features Captain America, Giant-Man, Iron Man, Wasp, and Thor running – and in some cases flying – through the streets of New York City. And while so much of Kirby’s work is iconic, it’s this cover that struck a chord with 30-year-old Brazilian artist/architecture graduate Hugo Canuto. The young artist used it as a starting point in August 2016 when he decided to combine comics with Yoruba culture.
What he ended up with was something that was altogether familiar and completely different. Instead of the white superheroes we’ve come to know, he replaced each one of them with an Orisha – gods and goddesses honored in Santería, Candomblé, Umbanda, and other religious practices derived mostly from the Yoruba. For example, Mjölnir-wielding Thor became the royal Xangô – who controls fire, lightning, and thunder and uses a double headed axe. Just like the cover, the title – The Orixás – mixes two cultures, but distinctly puts Bahia and Afro-Brazilian culture at the forefront.
“As a person born in Bahia, African influence is part of our identity,” he told me through email. “By age 10, already in love with myths, I read the African Legends of Orixás (Lendas Africanas Dos Orixás), a book written by Pierre Verger and designed by Carybé. Over time, I realized the importance of those entities coming from overseas, whose statues hang in the waters of the Doro do Tororó and the Rio Vermelho beach. As an artist, I have always sought to understand the role of myths and religions as active forces in the formation of societies. Before my work in comics, what I loved most as a child when reading Thor or New Gods, was the conception of their cities. Asgard, Olympia, Wakanda, Atilan, and New Genesis.”
Though he doesn’t consider his work religious, it does revolve around rituals and beliefs that originated in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo and which survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As Global Voices reports, Portuguese settlers first arrived in Bahia in the early 1500s and received around 1.3 million slaves – four times as many slaves as the United States. These beliefs live through Candomblé and Umbanda religions in Brazil. Hugo’s hope is that he helps tear down stereotypes that exist about African religions and black culture.
“I really want our work to show how beautiful and strong African heritage – which we also have in Brazil – is,” he added. “And sadly, it is still a victim of preconceptions, racism, and religious persecution. This strong and wise Orishas mythology can teach us about diversity.”
And people – who saw their own beliefs reflected in his comic book cover – responded positively. This led Canuto to creating another cover, this time featuring Xangô. Yoruba followers sent him excited messages and praised his second cover, so he decided to take it one step further: he launched a crowdfunding campaign so that he could create Orixás – Tales of Òrun Àiyé. This ambitious project will result in a 90-page comic book featuring stories inspired by the Itan, a collection of myths, songs, and tales about the Orishas. He only intended to raise about $4,000, but he ended up surpassing that number by bringing in approximately $12,000. The book’s slated for an August 2017 release.
Hugo started this venture on his own. But he’s tapped other talented artists to help him with Tales of Òrun Àiyé. Hugo laid out the visual concept and plot for the magazine, but Marcelo Kina and Pedro Minho will help him bring it to fruition. And with the help of scholars, the details will be accurate.
The book will make its debut in Brazil, but Canuto hopes to find a publisher so that – much like Yoruba culture – it can spread to the United Statses, the rest of Latin America, and Africa.
“When we speak of comics, it is a global language present from Japan to Argentina,” he said. “It’s an aesthetic that allows multiple narratives and reinventions. The importance is to adapt to this language some narratives that have crossed time and distances, retaining the same wisdom and enchantment as when they were told in the old cities of West Africa. They are part of our identity. I believe it is necessary to value one of the pillars of Brazil.”
In the meantime, you can admire more of his Orisha covers below: