Vishavjit Singh draws cartoons and dons a Captain America costume to help fight intolerance and bigotry. He visited Seattle earlier this month to launch an exhibition of his illustrations, on display through February 2019, at the Wing Luke Museum.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Sikh Captain America is decked out in a red, blue and silver superhero outfit, complete with a blue turban, shield and long beard. To exclamations of “Yes! Captain America!” from passersby, the smiles of excited children and requests for photographs, Sikh Captain America turns heads and makes people stop and think.
This is exactly what “accidental cartoonist,” performance artist and activist Vishavjit Singh was hoping to do when he created his Sikh Captain America alter ego.
Coming from what he calls a typical South Asian family, Singh says he was expected to be a doctor or engineer. But after 9/11, his path dramatically changed.
“Post 9/11 was a very difficult period for somebody who looked like me because a lot of Americans who were feeling insecure, anxious, angry — natural feelings after a tragedy like that — they projected their insecurities and vulnerabilities onto me,” Singh says. “Within hours I had people who were giving me nasty looks and I had to work from home for the next two weeks. When I did step out, everybody — just about everybody, was giving me looks, calling me names; told me to go back home.”
It was an editorial cartoon by Mark Fiore called “Find the Terrorist in Your Neighborhood,” depicting a Sikh man in a turban after 9/11 as a target of prejudice, that made Singh feel less alone. “He captured my predicament in a cartoon that had a cartoon character that looked like me, and I’d never seen an editorial cartoon character looking like me and capturing my story.”
Months went by and Singh realized that if more stories of Sikh Americans were going to be told, someone from the Sikh community would have to step up and tell them. Singh taught himself to draw, and in 2002, his website Sikhtoons.com, which features his cartoons targeting intolerance and bigotry, was born.
Singh, who lives in New York City, visited Seattle earlier this month to launch an exhibition of his illustrations, on display through February 2019, at the Wing Luke Museum.
Sikhs (pronounced “six”) are the fifth-largest religious group in the world. The majority of Sikhs live in the Punjab region of India, while an estimated 500,000 live in the United States. The ideas of “oneness” — that there is one divine creator that all faiths worship and that can be found within each person, and of equality of all people, are central to Sikh beliefs. To this end, many Sikhs adopt the names “Singh” for men and “Kaur” for women to remove the caste or class attachments of family surnames. As one of the Sikh articles of faith, women and men are expected to have unshorn hair. Many Sikh men (and some women) choose to wear a turban as a demonstration of their faith. It is this visible aspect of Sikh identity that has made their community the target of much of the ignorance, hate and violence post-9/11.
In 2013, after over 10 years of creating cartoons and his heartbreak over the massacre of six Sikhs by a white supremacist in a house of worship in Wisconsin, Singh followed the suggestion of New York photographer Fiona Aboud and started to don the Captain America outfit. Before his first outing in New York City, Singh had to overcome his self doubt, fear and body image issues. But the reaction to his effort to break down boundaries was overwhelmingly positive. “People came up, started taking photos with me, of me. People started coming and hugging me. I had police officers who asked me, ‘Can I take a photo with you?’”
Singh has traveled across the country in his Sikh Captain America persona, from schools and universities to the Republican National Convention, the Women’s March on Washington D.C. and the inauguration of the 45th U.S. president. At the RNC and the inauguration, he added banners to his appearances, for example, changing Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” to “Latinos, Muslims, Hispanics, Whites, Asians … We All Make America Great.”
The interactions that stem from these appearances are what drives Singh’s work. “I stood at the gates of [President Trump’s] inauguration where people come in … a lot of people were like, ‘oh this is interesting.’ … Some people started conversations, like: ‘We have issues with certain groups of people, not with you,’ or ‘My doctor happens to be Sikh, but I have issues with Muslims.’ So [there] were some very interesting, complicated conversations that were happening.”
Yet while these connections are often positive, Singh says the climate has worsened since the start of the Trump campaign. “The rhetoric has been so heated up that I feel a lot of people are more open to expressing their prejudices,” he said. “I’ve seen people at times respond to me differently. It goes up and down and depends on the news cycle. So if there is a terrorist attack abroad or at home, I get to feel it first. I get to see people giving me more mean looks or calling me names.”
In a chilling example of the continued threats to the Sikh community, a Sikh man in Kent was shot and wounded in his driveway last year by an assailant who reportedly yelled, “go back to your own country.” Hate crimes against Sikh-Americans in the U.S. increased 17 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to the nonprofit organization South Asian Americans Leading Together, citing FBI data.
Jasmit Singh, one of the co-founders of the Sikh Coalition and a longtime activist for immigrant rights, says the Sikh community was shaken by the attack in Kent. “The community, and especially the elderly, felt very unsafe about being outside,” he said.
Vishavjit Singh’s work “lends voice to the pain and anxiety that every Sikh parent feels about the safety of their children or the discrimination that they themselves face,” Jasmit Singh said. The kids, meanwhile, “are really excited to see his work — they connect with his Captain America persona. … Vishavjit is questioning our mental models about what a super hero needs to look like. … What his work is doing is laying out alternative models that show super heroes as people that are all around us — they can be of any ethnicity, color, race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc.”
Vishavjit Singh hopes that his cartoons and his Captain America outfit continue to break down prejudices. “I think there’s something about humor; I think it lets people’s guard down,” he says. “That’s where you have that opening, where you can connect.”
“Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, Turbans & Confronting Hate,” through Feb. 24, 2019; Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King St., Seattle; $10-$17; 206-623-5124, wingluke.org
This story has been updated to clarify where Vishavjit Singh made his first appearance as Sikh Captain America.