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ha•pa (hä’pä)
adj. 1. Slang of mixed ethnic heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry.
n. 2. Slang a person of such ancestry. [der./Hawaiian: hapa haole (half white)]

Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project was recently exhibited at the Race: Are We So Different? exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, Aug. 2011.[1] The expanded context of the display considered the history and context of race issues in the USA, and the main objective of the exhibition was to destabilize and criticize notions of race – exposing powerful historical, financial, economical and political interests underlying racial discourses rather than any biological or bodily inherited “truth”, in the same manner that ideas of gender and sexuality had been heavily criticized and objected to in the past decades. However, the inclusion of Fulbeck’s Hapa Project in the context of this issue of the TAP Review also throws an interesting light on the concept of Asia in general, beyond the immediate context of race in the USA. Fulbeck’s project extends to pose an inquiry into broad issues of personal identity, cultural significance and geographical definitions. When viewing Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, one is immediately confronted with a series of questions: Who is Asian? Who is Pacific Islander and how is this related to Asia? What is Asia? Is it a geographical term? Maybe a historical set of links between certain groups of people spread out over the largest continent on Earth? Or possibly, Asia is a cultural sphere of ideas, along with their practice and representation? Or perhaps being Asian is a question of racial identity, after all?

Fulbeck’s Hapa Project serves as a successful critique of racial stereotypes through the display of individual portraits. His subjects effectively offer their singular appearance and unique characteristics, defying the notion of average or typical signifiers of Asian facial features. The appeal of this project lies mainly in its subversive attitude, and a refusal, on the part of participants and artist alike, to be confined by conventional geographic, racial or ethnic definitions. The presence of the group displayed here, and beyond, (Fulbeck’s project consists of 1200 portraits so far) challenges the scientific desire to classify, to put order and clear demarcations on human identity.

Fulbeck cleverly creates a definite level of chaos through brief texts presented in the hand-writing (and doodling) of the varying participants. These citations resist any scientific or orderly manners of description, letting the personal, the singular, the un-chainable leak in to create their own moments of boundless, un-bordered existence. The personal texts accompanying the photographs cannot be summed up in charts, percentages, titles or boxes. Each person in Fulbeck’s collection defines Asia and the Pacific Islands, being (partly) Asian or Pacific Islander or sharing Asian attributes in a different manner, creating a plethora of definitions, and a chaotic experience that successfully undermines preconceptions of the singularity of Asia that the viewer/ reader may have had. Once this group of portraits faces you, the reader, you are certainly invited to reconsider any preconceived ideas and notions about Asia, identity, race, or other defining elements used in contemporary societies. The Hapa Project suggests an uncanny, haunting moment, when the viewer faces the portrait on display but hesitates as to how to identify or describe the person viewed.

In this sense, Fulbeck’s work adds a dimension to the rest of the projects presented in this issue, The Hapa Project suggests a reading that does not take for granted the place, context and meaning of Asia. It undermines, on the one hand, but opens and expands, on the other, the definitions of Asia, or Asian people.

-Ayelet Zohar

Kip Fulbeck on creating The Hapa Project (a summary from The Hapa Project website)

In 2002, Kip Fulbeck began a project documenting the portraits and handwritten words of Hapa individuals (multiracials of partial Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent). As the project evolved, what started with a few dozen people in San Francisco has matured into a rapidly growing collection of over 1200 portraits made throughout the USA.

Fulbeck was born in 1965 in Fontana, Southern California, to a Cantonese mother and an American father, himself a son of English and Irish immigrants. With anti-miscegenation laws still on the books until 1967, Fulbeck’s parents’ matrimonial union was technically illegal in several states. Moreover, Fulbeck was 35 years old before the US Census allowed him to check more than one box on the ethnicity questionnaire.  People of mixed descent often have to face questions like “What are you?”. Fulbeck states that he was confronted with wild guesses identifying him as Native American, Hawai’ian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, Filipino, or African American. 

Officially, The Hapa Project was born out of need – a need to promote awareness and recognition of the millions of multiracials of Asian/Pacific Islander descent in the US, to give voice to multiracial people and previously ignored ethnic groups. Simultaneously, the project aimed to dispel myths of exoticism, hybrid vigor and racial homogeneity, and to foster positive identity formation and self-image in multiracial children. Lastly the project seeks to encourage solidarity and empowerment within the multiracial/Hapa community. 

The project was designed with the thought based on the contrast between how people look at Others and how one sees oneself, operating under three basic parameters:

  1. Individuals are photographed identically and straight on – bare from the collarbone upwards, without make-up, jewelry or glasses, and without expression.  In other words, we look like we really look.  Each individual has the option to see and approve his or her image.
  2. Each individual’s ethnic background is listed in their own words.
  3. Beneath this, and in his or her own handwriting, is each individual’s half-page (or less) personal response to the question “What are you?”

However much we want to, we can’t ignore the way society looks at and groups individuals together via race and ethnicity.  The idea that the Hapa people in this project have some kind of shared experience, some commonality of cohesion simply because they happen to share partial ancestry in a certain hemisphere of the world is not a realistic thought, and is proven false within the first few images and statements of The Hapa Project.  If anything, what Hapas do share is the fact that society misjudges and mis-evaluates them constantly – they’re the lucky ones, the exotics, the future of the worlds, the ambassadors to world peace ... And in this way, the people in this project speak for all multiracials – and all people – in the same way any person who chooses to speak for him or herself can.  Hapas are all individuals with separate identities and we have the right to claim these identities.


Kip Fulbeck is an artist, spoken word performer, author, filmmaker and professor.  He has exhibited in over 20 countries and throughout the U.S.

Notes

    1. Race: Are we so Different? A Project of the American Anthropological Association http://www.understandingrace.org/home.html [accessed Aug. 2011]return to text