Sikh art exhibit puts a face on a group not often featured in American life

Museum News

By Claire Morgan, The Sacramento Bee
Nov. 6, 2018

The California Museum has a new exhibit that puts a spotlight on members of the American Sikh community, a population that has been a part of the fabric of American life for over 100 years. Called the Sikh Project, the exhibit features portrait photographs of prominent members of the American — and Californian — Sikh community.

The exhibit features faces. A man in a motorcycle club, a violinist, a farmer, an eagle scout. There is no one Sikh face.

Sikhism is the one of the largest organized religions in the world, with roughly 25 million members globally, according to the Sikh Coalition. There are more than 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, and it is estimated that roughly half of that population lives in California.

The Sikh Coalition founded the project in 2016 and focused on featuring prominent Sikh men, but later decided to expand the scope of the project to include women and children, according to Sikh community member Deepraj Randhawa.

“The Sikh Coalition partnered with British photographers, Amit and Naroop, to develop a landmark photography exhibition that features 38 Sikh American portraits embodying the beauty, resilience and perseverance of Sikh men and women 15 years after 9/11,” a news release from the Sikh Coalition says. “The exhibition was launched in New York City in September 2016 to critical acclaim and featured unique and overwhelmingly positive stories about Sikhs in America.”

The goal of the exhibit aims to bring light to the Sikh community in the United States, which Randhawa said is often misunderstood.

“It’s a huge population that people don’t know that much about, they just see a turban and that’s all they know beyond that,” Randhawa said. “If you just look past the articles of faith that you see, the stories connect and you realize that there really isn’t much of a difference.”

The exhibit has traveled all over the country before landing in Sacramento — it was first presented in New York City and has since traveled to Texas and other states. The exhibit has a special place in the California Museum, though, according to Amanda Meeker, the museum’s Exhibits and Programs Director.

“We really make an effort to tell stories that have not traditionally been told in these settings,” Meeker said. “We are a museum that’s not only about California’s history but also about its cultures because there are so many different cultures in California, and we want to make sure that they all have a place here in our state museum.”

The exhibit features prominent Sikh figures like Amrita Kaur Khurana, the first turbaned woman to work at the New York Times. It shows Sat Hari Singh, a New York City train operator who turned a train around on 9/11 and saved the lives of all of the train’s riders And if has California’s Alameda County Deputy Sheriff Harinder Kaur Khalsa, who the Sikh Coalition says is the longest-serving turbaned law enforcement officer in the United States.

“Probably tens of thousands of kids will come through this exhibit over the next few months,” Meeker said. “If even a few of them stop and look and learn, and think a little differently then we’ve made a success.”