Sikh Captain America Challenges Superhero Stereotypes

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With the excitement of the recent release “Avengers: Infinity War,” it wasn’t that unusual to see images of Captain America at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, though he did look a little different.

With a turban, beard and glasses, Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist and creator of the website Sikhtoons.com, started dressing as the Sikh Captain America after the attack on the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2011. Urged by a photographer at New York City Comic Con to dress up as his cartoon, he finally obliged and hasn’t looked back since.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 were particularly challenging for Singh. He found it difficult to step out of his home in New York City because of the amount of hate he was getting as a turbaned, bearded man. It was during this time that he came across an editorial cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Mark Fiore, titled “Find a Terrorist” which included a Sikh turbaned character. In the second half of 2002, inspired by Fiore’s character, he created the website sikhtoons.com.

In 2011, Singh took his work to New York City Comic-con to join the rest of the cartoonists tabling with prints of his work. Since that year, the first Captain America movie had just released, he had drawn a cartoon of a Captain America as a Sikh. Fiona Aboud, a photographer who was composing a photo essay of Sikhs in United States, approached Singh to dress up like his cartoon.

“I was photographing Sikhs in the United States that were either doing interesting things or representing American Culture or are just a part of American Culture. I wanted to show a very Americana side of Sikh life,” Aboud said. “Vish was a cartoon artist, who did a Captain America cartoon and I was like that is incredibly visual, it’s something everyone can connect to and I really feel like if we went around, people would love it and it’s like a perfect combination to what he’s doing already so I thought ‘Why not?’”

Aboud approached Singh twice before he finally agreed, in 2012. Deterred by his skinny physique, after buying the costume, he stuffed it with football pads before his wife told him he looked ridiculous and encouraged him to be Captain America as himself.

“Now I know today, that people will look at this [Captain America] and go ‘oh diversity’, but to me I’m a big thing about labels and I’m sort of deliberate about how I do or do not use labels so yes, it is diversity, but I call it storytelling,” Singh said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing storytelling. I want to do storytelling where I want people to get confused about labels.”

Wing Luke Asian Museum is showcasing an exhibit featuring Singh’s work that will be on display until February 2019. At “Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, Turbans, and Confronting Hate,” visitors can not only view his work, but they can also interact with the exhibits. Visitors can create their own superhero shields out of plates featuring positive words of power, can play the “Find a Terrorist” game by Fiore, and see the original costume that Singh wore back in 2012.

The Exhibit Developer at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Mikala Woodward, worked with Singh to bring his vision to life. There are many things she wants people to take away when after seeing this exhibit.

“He [Singh] really has been able to use humor to change how people see things and he stepped into this superhero persona was a big leap for him and it was a brave thing that he like got over his shyness and made it happen. That’s really inspiring to me as well, that you can overcome your fears and step into embody the thing that you want to see in the world,” Woodward said.

Superheroes exist not just on the big screen, but all around us, and without even dressing as Sikh Captain America challenging superhero stereotypes, Vishavjit Singh was already a superhero.

“I think they [superheroes] are important as like a source of symbols, you know, like someone has it in them to be superpowered and to do something really special for humanity and Vish is that, for sure,” Aboud said.

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