By Maya Leshikar
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Vishavjit Singh thinks America needs a reimagined superhero.
His museum exhibit displays sketches, photos, and imagery of Captain America — if he were a Sikh man with a turban and beard. His mission is to challenge traditional narratives about what a hero looks like, and this sort of representational storytelling is something that Singh encourages in others. His talks, given in Captain America attire and a turban, which includes comic-creating workshops, have drawn the eye of schools nationwide, including some in Seattle.
The cartoonist gets invited to local schools regularly, not just because of his flashy get-up, but because of his powerful content about what makes a real superhero and American. Singh’s art installation at the Wing Luke Museum, “Wham! Bam! Pow!,” has garnered attention, but the message he brings to schools is also creating conversations about diversity and people’s differences.
He got his start 17 years ago, after seeing the surge in attacks against Sikhs post-9/11. An engineer by trade, he was inspired to take up drawing as a way to express his frustrations on the reality of being Sikh in America.
“It affected everybody’s lives,” Singh said. “People just projected their vulnerability.”
So, Singh taught himself cartooning and created his site sikhtoons.com in 2002.
Some of the most popular drawings are ripped from the headlines, like The Scream parody of Indian officials’ reaction to the arrest of a diplomat. He injects humor into current events because comedy can break down walls of fear and anxiety, he says.
Much of Singh’s work features “Sikh Captain America,” his bearded and turbaned alter ego that fights injustice on paper and walks the streets in a Marvel costume in real-life. His decision to use superhero imagery stemmed from a desire to subvert expectations on what it means to look “American.”
Though his initial artwork was a response to 9/11-related hate crimes, Singh feels a new sense of urgency under the Trump administration.
“Just about every group feels like they’re getting targeted,” Singh said. “We need this more than ever.”
Singh is based in New York, but he chose Seattle to house his artwork after forming a relationship with the Wing Luke Museum in the International District. He thinks most of the issues facing Seattle’s Sikh population are the same issues shared everywhere in the country, which is the public’s unfamiliarity with the religion.
Tripat Singh is a community organizer who works actively within the local Sikh community, putting on events like the religious retreat where he first met Vishavjit Singh over 10 years ago. He says Seattle is an essentially passive-aggressive city, and in his experience, anti-Sikh prejudice is rarely out in the open.
He also feels that using art as a means of expression in the community was somewhat stifled in the years following 9/11. But Vishavjit Singh’s artwork challenges people to see current events as they affect real people, not just as sensationalized news stories.
Tripat Singh says he’s seen very positive responses to the exhibit, especially since it is accessible to people without much context on the issues.
“He understands the popular perception of whatever he is talking about,” Tripat Singh said. “Then there’s also the Sikh perception that’s at an undercurrent or deeper level… and he’s able to articulate that in his artwork.”
A large part of Vishavjit Singh’s job is public speaking, and he has visited at a number of Seattle schools, like Leschi Elementary and The Evergreen School. In his talks, he tries to connect with students about issues like bullying, labels, and the power of art, in a light-hearted way for kids. He says he gets the best questions from children because of their honesty and lack of filters.
Sunder Khurana is the mother of a first-grader whose school Singh visited, where there is a high population of students who cover their heads for religious reasons.
They are currently the only Sikh family there, and she feels that because of Singh’s presentation, the school community was able to learn more about her spiritual tradition.
“We all have something or other about ourselves that makes us at least feel like we stand out or makes us self-conscious when confronting the world,” Khurana said.
“One of the things that stood out to me in the assembly was having superheroes that resemble us as individuals and what we aspire to be, and that those superheroes should look like you so that they’re attainable.”
Anitha Pai, diversity director for Evergreen, shared how Singh’s presentation last May taught the fifth grade and kindergarten students to tell their own stories and represent themselves accurately in them.
“He did a talk on his life and his story, and after that, he got into his costume, his superhero outfit, and then hosted a comic strip workshop,” Pai said. “Kids got to pick out their own story and how they would want to narrate it in comic strip form.
It really was around how have you stood up against prejudice or discrimination, or how have you been an ally in this way, so making that very personal for them.”
When the students do the comic-making activity, they are encouraged to personalize their superhero to resemble them. When Singh draws himself, he’s not going to just draw a head with no turban on it, because that is not him. He talks about how he often gets comments based on his appearance, sometimes it’s insults, and sometimes it’s asking where he is really from.
Instead of asking a person of a different race, religion, or ethnicity where they’re from, Singh suggests asking, “What’s your story?”
“He said that’s a great way to just open a conversation with everybody or anybody, because we all have stories,” Pai said.
She says that soon after his presentation, he was approached by an Evergreen kindergartner who looked up at him with big, innocent eyes, and asked,
“So… what’s your story?”
Maya can be reached at email@example.com.