When cartoonist Vishavjit Singh becomes Sikh Captain America, the look is distinctive. His turban, long beard, glasses and brown skin stand in contrast to the way we’re used to seeing the fictional hero presented. Because of the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, actor Chris Evans might be the first image of Captain America to come to mind. For comic book fans, the traditional depiction of a tall, well-built, chiseled-chin version of the Super Soldier is ingrained in their memory.
The reactions are varied when people see Singh in costume, his hand gripping a shield emblazoned with a star in the center. Some voice their displeasure, but many more want their picture with him or to simply strike up a conversation.
“I want that image, that powerful image of me — skinny, glasses, turban, beard — going in and just kind of confusing people,” said Singh. “I’m trying to confuse people to a certain extent, so they will start asking questions, so they will start exploring, so they’ll start asking why.”
He said those questions lend themselves to learning experiences and potentially growth. Singh has been traveling and speaking as Sikh Captain America for the last six years. He’s presenting a discordant image of the most patriotic superhero at school appearances, workshops and comic cons. He’s helped break down barriers, educate people on the Sikh religion and challenged assumptions of who is American.
Now, Singh has teamed up with Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy, Christie Skoorsmith and Gregory L. Evans for a photo and storytelling project titled “The American Superhero.” They’re welcoming others who want to depict Captain America as well. In addition to professional photos, Gowdy asks them what they consider to be their superpower and what being an American means to them.
“Dressing up was kind of a funny, humorous way to kind of loosen people up,” said Gowdy. “But we found out that once they sat down to tell their stories, we were blown away.”
Aleksa Manila, a social worker and drag queen, is among the group. In the portrait, Manila is wearing an opulent crown, chandelier earrings, royal blue sequined dress and holding the mighty shield. In the accompanying narrative, Manila explains why drag is their superpower: “It allows people to be inspired, to be encouraged, to dig deep and to see the beauty that exists inside and out.”
Jeremy Best, a high school music teacher, musician and quadriplegic, also posed for the project. Best described his superpower as pioneering technology so others with a similar physical condition can still make music in the future. The Vasilez family of three joined in, and so did Mary Elisabeth Hancock. She’s 99 and was a World War II nurse.
“The American Superhero” project officially launched on the Fourth of July, the date of American independence and Steve Rogers’ birthday. (For the unacquainted in the comic book back story, Rogers is Captain America’s real name.) The project showcases a range of people from all different types of backgrounds, ages and abilities.
“You don’t have to look like Chris Evans to be an American superhero,” said Gowdy. “It’s such a simple way to broaden people’s visions of who gets to be American.”
The project comes at a time when diversity and inclusion efforts are taking up more mainstream space. The group is focused on telling human stories to show that, once we get past the exterior, there’s plenty to unite us. It’s an extension of the work Singh has been doing for several years.
Gowdy first saw Singh in 2016 at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He didn’t have time to interact with Sikh Captain America then, but Singh left an indelible mark in his memory. Fast forward two years to Singh coming to Seattle for the opening reception of his exhibition “Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, Turbans & Confronting Hate” at Wing Luke Museum. Gowdy was going to be out of town, but he reached out to Singh and invited him to stop by the studio for a portrait session before the event. Singh agreed.
Later that year, Singh spoke at Town Hall. While in line to chat with Singh, Gowdy happened to be standing behind Skoorsmith and her twins. She broached the idea with Singh to have her transgender twins also dress up as Captain America. The idea piqued Singh’s interest. Gowdy overheard the conversation and suggested they start taking portraits here, rather than Singh’s home in New York City. In a move that’s the antithesis of the Seattle freeze, Gowdy and Skoorsmith not only exchanged information that night, but they actually met again in person to start brainstorming. The two became fast friends united in a common cause.
After creating a pitch, Gowdy and Skoorsmith solicited people they knew to participate. The response from people wanting to participate has exceeded their expectations and the project has grown beyond their immediate circle. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., joined the project. A portion of the finished portraits are on Gowdy’s website and 35 portraits are on display in the mezzanine of UW Tower.
Gowdy sometimes gets goose bumps when he talks about the experience of photographing people as Captain America and listening to their personal narratives.
“When people tell their stories, it helps tell ours as a whole, as a people, as a culture, a society,” said Gowdy. “A lot of them have been through extremely difficult situations, but they’ve all come out the other side.”
“The American Superhero” is a passion project for Singh. He’s fighting back against the racism he still experiences. He’s still being called Osama Bin Laden and told to go back home.
With 45 now at the helm, Singh said he hasn’t experienced a significant increase in vitriol directed at him. Rather, he points to what he described as a silver lining — more empathy from other targeted communities.
After the exhibition at UW tower, the portraits will head to Retail Therapy in Capitol Hill.
From there, the group wants to take portraits of people in other areas and eventually create a book. Singh believes one of the best ways to counter the negative narrative from the current administration is to revere the vulnerabilities and triumphs of everyday Americans.
“We all can be Captain America. We all have super heroic seeds in us and we express them differently in real life,” said Singh. “I want people to see themselves in these stories.”
WHAT: The American Superhero portrait and storytelling project
WHEN: Runs until Oct. 4
WHERE: UW Tower mezzanine, 4333 Brooklyn Ave NE, Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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