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A Sikh Captain America in Trump's America

February 01, 2017 20:00 IST

What happened when Indian-American cartoonist Vishavjit Singh stood outside Donald Trump's inauguration dressed as Captain America?
Monali Sarkar finds out.

Sikh Captain America

IMAGE: Vishavjit Singh was pleasantly surprised by the reception his Sikh Captain America avatar received outside Donald Trump's inauguration, January 20. Photograph: @SikhProf/Twitter.com


Does someone wearing the iconic Captain America blue unitard with a star on the chest and holding the bulls-eye shield necessarily have to look like Chris Evans?

Not according to Sikh-American cartoonist Vishavjit Singh and photographer Fiona Aboud.

Singh, the creator of Sikhtoons, had created an illustration for New York Comic Con of a Sikh man -- with a beard, turban, and brown skin -- in the superhero's regalia.

And when Aboud met Singh, soon after the gurdwara massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, she envisioned the character in 3-D.

She encouraged Singh to don the Captain America costume himself and pose for a photo shoot around Manhattan as part of her project Sikhs: An American Portrait.

Singh's Sikh Captain America avatar has since gone places, challenging and shattering stereotypes and prompting strangers into thinking and talking about diversity.

And his most recent stop was United States President Donald Trump's inauguration.

'My Captain America alter-ego is all about promoting a twitch in our perceptual reality to create a space where perhaps for a few moments we can look beyond our stereotypes,' Singh told The Huffington Post.

He was prepared to face 'resistance and even outright aggression,' and was surprised when he did not.

He said this was a rare instance when he faced no threat, no anger.

'More than a few supporters of the soon-to-be president were very open to my presence and message. Many came up to take photos with me,' he added. 'I heard a ton of "Yes, that is right on." A young woman offered an extra Inauguration ticket to me. A few police officers complimented me on the uniform.'

Aboud was there to photograph the Sikh Captain America's new experience.

Sikh Captain America

IMAGE: Vishavjit Singh created an illustration of a Sikh Captain America for New York Comic Con a few years ago.
Photographer Fiona Aboud envisioned this character in 3-D; she encouraged him to don the Captain America costume himself and pose for a photoshoot around Manhattan as part of her project Sikhs: An American Portrait.
Photograph: Kind courtesy Fiona Aboud


S
ingh dressed as a classic American superhero was an ideal addition to Aboud's work, which aims to redefine what it means to 'look American' while simultaneously building greater understanding around the presence and identity of Sikhs in the US.

'My idea is to photograph Sikhs and, instead of photographing them in the gurdwara and places that more typically highlight indicators of their Sikhism, to photograph them in their homes, in ordinary American places, in their everyday lives basically, in order to visually make them American," she had earlier told Rediff.com.

"Because that's the whole problem with all the hate crimes -- the misunderstanding is that people go, 'Oh, well they're not American.' By showing them in those environments, people can start to see them as more similar maybe. Like reverse-orientalism or something."

This is not to say that she's attempting to erase their Sikh-ness in the images.

It's just a matter of redefining what that means for Sikh Americans.

This is part of why she didn't shoot the aftermath of the Oak Creek gurdwara massacre of 2012.

Tragedy is not her focus, and to jar is not her intent.

She knows fully the importance of showing and publicising such events, but news outlets did that job.

And even for those who follow these horrors and empathise with those who have suffered, it's easy to pin Sikhs as victims of hate crimes, feel the injustice, and then get on with your more normal American life.

Aboud wanted to spotlight "meaning in the banal and the everyday that we overlook."

She wanted her artwork to resonate more universally than the searing of violent images, to strike a chord of familiarity, put common ground beneath the subject and the viewer, and get to the heart of being simultaneously Sikh and American.

Sikh Captain America

IMAGE: At the inauguration, Singh also carried a sign that read: 'Black, Muslim, Trans, Latino, Asian, White. We All make America Great Again.' Photograph: Kind courtesy @SikhProf/Twitter.com

With years of capturing the mundane realities of Sikh lives, 'Sikhs: An American Portrait' became a passion project.

"It's definitely been the longest running of anything I've done," Aboud had told Rediff.com. "Also, it has the potential to change people's perspective."

"At the end of the day, as a photographer, you leave behind your images; they are a sort of historical document of what exists in the now. It's a lofty way of thinking of it, but that's kind of how I feel."

Her work took on a deeper significance as Aboud photographed the Sikh Captain America at Trump's inauguration.

Because, as Singh told The Huffington Post, 'Our journey ahead is going to be bumpy ride through with major political turbulence. Our main weapon of choice has to be knowledge. We need to make sure not to let the anger drive us towards hate.'

Monali Sarkar / Rediff.com
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