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We Are Hapa

Gwen Muranaka, The Rafu Shimpo

June 10, 2006

New photo exhibit at JANM explores ideas of identity and ethnicity.

Photographs of individuals of multiracial heritage and their responses to the most common question asked of people of mixed-race background—”What are you?”—comprises the heart of the art exhibition, “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa,” set to open at the Japanese American National Museum this Thursday.

Three years ago, Fulbeck, an award-winning filmmaker and artist, began photographing multiracial individuals around the country. The photographs are all taken the same way—from the collarbone up, without clothing, jewelry, glasses, makeup, or even purposeful expression.

The images frame the subjects’ heads and shoulders and, according to Fulbeck, play upon and critique the official photographs each person has taken for their driver’s licenses, passports and other forms of identification.

Artist Kip Fulbeck explores multiracial identity in the exhibit, “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa,” beginning June 8 at the Japanese American National Museum. Over 80 anonymous portraits will be on display.

The twist is that each individual has the opportunity to respond in their own handwriting to the frequently asked question of all individuals of diverse racial backgrounds: “What are you?”

The subjects vary in age, gender and background. Besides their statements, the subjects are only identified by their racial and/or ethnic background—also designated by the subjects themselves.

The term Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning “half” or “portion.” Used in the phrase Hapa haole, it originally referred to people who were half Hawaiian and half Caucasian—usually in a derogatory way implying impurity. Over time, its pejorative connotation diminished and the word Hapa came to be used both in Hawaii and on the continent as an identifier for multiracial people of partial Asian/Pacific Islander ancestry. Now used as a term of pride by an ever-expanding hapa community, it fills a void intrinsic to a country that does not readily recognize multiraciality.

Rafu Managing Editor Ellen Endo, who is of Italian and Japanese descent, lends her face to the exhibit.

Fulbeck, who is a mix of Chinese, English, and Irish, was told by his full-blooded Chinese cousins when he was 5 years old that he was Hapa. He never gave much thought to the term as a child, but as he got older and experienced the tremendous lack of knowledge relating to mixed-race identity (or worse, the negative connotations associated with it) he began thinking about ways to promote a more realistic and human portrayal of hapa identity. Integral to this process was utilizing the term hapa in a positive manner.

“I think part of that is the fact that it’s a reclamation of a once-pejorative term,” Fulbeck explained, “and part of it is it’s the first label that wasn’t put on us. ‘Eurasian’? ‘AfroAsian’?—these types of words always feel a bit scientific to me,” he said. “‘Amerasian’ has that whole 1975-Vietnamese-G.I. connotation in some people’s minds. ‘Hybrid’ or ‘half-breed’ are problematic. ‘Mixed blood’ is okay, but when you get down to it, that’s really just about everybody. Hapa feels a bit more fluid, less formal. Its use is still evolving.”

Initially, Fulbeck began taking photographs for his web site, “The Hapa Project.” He planned on making the photographs accessible through the site at (http://thehapaproject.com) and put out a simple call for willing subjects. The response was immediate—so much so that Fulbeck proposed publishing a book using some of the photographs and the written responses as a way to help fund the project. The book, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” has just been released through Chronicle Books, and forms the basis of this exhibition.

“The Japanese American National Museum is honored to have ‘kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa’ presented at our institution,” stated Irene Hirano, president and CEO of the National Museum. “As an artist’s project, this exhibition delves into a subject of vital importance to not just the Japanese American community, but to our nation and our world.”

The exhibition displays the essence of Fulbeck’s project, including a cross section of over 80 photographs juxtaposed next to each subjects’ statements on the walls of the galleries of the Watanabe and Miyawaki Galleries of the National Museum’s Pavilion. While the names of the subjects are absent, Fulbeck has carefully included the racial heritage of each person according to the subject’s own designation, including mixes of Filipino, Scottish and German; Cuban, Japanese and Jewish; Hakka, Shanghainese, Welsh, English, German and Swiss, and more.

The individual statements reflect the myriad of experiences of the subjects. One man wrote, “I am a daily contest to guess what I am.” One youngster stated, “I’m a girl. I’m American. I’m seven. I am Hanna.”

Another woman recalled, “My last boyfriend told me he liked me because of my race. So I dumped him.” And a young man described himself as “an American kid who celebrates Hanukkah with his Jewish stepfather, prays to Buddha with his Buddhist momma, and then goes to midnight Mass with his Christian father and waits for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Yeah.”

On Saturdays during the run of the exhibition, visitors can take a Polaroid photograph in the gallery and add their images and personal responses to the question of “What are you?” to the exhibition’s interactive display. With new subjects being constantly added, the exhibition will continue to evolve. In addition to this gallery activity, a video monitor will be showing one of Fulbeck’s short films, “Lilo and Me,” a parody of how people of color are homogenized by mainstream media.

In conjunction with this exhibition, DiscoverNikkei.org, a web site containing one of the world’s largest Nikkei-related databases of history and culture, will feature supporting materials for “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa.” An extensive video interview with Fulbeck will be featured in the “Real People” section with clips that explore his personal experiences. The “Community Forum” will feature a new bulletin board on hapa identity, open to participation and available for questions.

Individuals who visit the galleries and have their own photographs taken along with their written responses may have their materials submitted to the “Nikkei Album” section of the web site. Also, the museum will provide access to its inaugural “podcasts” with a series of ten-minute audio programs that explore “what hapa sounds like” through interviews, narration and music. New programming will be posted regularly.

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