JANM is thrilled to be opening a new exhibition by our old friend Kip Fulbeck on April 7, 2018. Check out the schedule of opening day activities for hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project and plan to spend the day with us.
The following text is excerpted from an essay by Cindy Nakashima in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. Nakashima has researched, written on, and taught about mixed race for over 30 years. She has published numerous articles on the subject, co-authored the book The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, and has co-curated two museum exhibitions exploring critical mixed races studies.
When Kip first spread the word in 2000-2001 that he was going to do a photo-based project of mixed race Asian/Pacific Islanders, we – meaning the small but growing group of us who were doing Hapa work at the time – were equal parts excited and nervous.
First of all, we asked ourselves and each other, “But who cares about us?” While it was definitely an exciting time to be in the dialogue – a moment of coalescing around the subject of mixed race (some were even calling it a “multiracial movement” – it still felt very much as if we were a small and obscure topic in the big world. If Mixed Race as a subject matter was ever recognized within the larger discourse on race (and even then, only marginally), it was always assumed to be Black/White.
And how will Kip ever find enough of us to photograph? Remember, there was no Facebook or Instagram back then. We’d have to get on our early generation cell phones and call every mixed person we knew, and make fliers and post them all over campuses and J-town and Little Tokyo. And what kind of venue would want to show our photographs? Would an Asian American community or student center identify with us enough to show it? Would they even be interested, let alone supportive? We’d been made to feel unwanted in Asian American institutions before – it was an especially painful sting. Dreaming big reminded us of how small we were.
Or were we?
. . . .
The photo shoots that Kip set up across the country turned out to be mob scenes, with 20, 30, 40, 50 Hapas … 1,200 in all across the country, pouring out of the makeshift studios into the hallways. People drove hours to sit on the floor with other mixed people, filling out release forms and answering his “What Are You?” paperwork.
For those whose photos were included in the exhibit or book, Kip ultimately decided to omit their names for safety and privacy purposes. This had the added effect of taking away a major source of external supposition and judgement about the subjects in terms of their ethnicity, paternal/maternal lineages, social class, and cultural adherences. We Hapas know that our names can misrepresent us as easily as they can represent us.
Interestingly, Kip did choose to include the subjects’ self-reported ethnic identifications on the page with their “What are you?” answers, and he did so in all lower-case, using tiny letters. He included whatever the subjects wrote – ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, regional identities – with little effort for consistency. At first I wondered why. When I asked him, the answer was simple: he knew that we’d want to know! It’s easy to forget, when analyzing The Hapa Project, that the audience in Kip’s mind was first and foremost mixed people. And let’s face it – we love learning about each other’s mixes! Just the fact that a person’s identity includes “Thai, Indian, Scottish and Lithuanian” excites our imaginations for the family history as well as the Thanksgiving dinner menu that might go with it.
But other than that, the external gaze of this project is very often an Asian American one, and as Kip frequently mentions, the only people who have trouble believing that he’s Chinese are Chinese people. The rigidity of what “looks” Chinese, Japanese, Korean – as determined by Chinese, Japanese, Koreans – was, and is, something worth challenging. The faces in The Hapa Project might not “look Chinese” (or Japanese or South Asian or Thai) – but they are. Get used to it!
There’s a reason why The Hapa Project has lasted so long, both in terms of visual interest and relevance. Yes, it’s gorgeous. But it’s also terrifically thoughtful in its concept and in its design. I am one of the lucky few who was witness to just how much thought Kip put into it.
The hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project catalog can now be pre-ordered from the JANM Store, though they will not be shipped until after April 7. If you join us for opening day, you can purchase yours then and have it signed by Fulbeck, Nakashima, and others involved in hapa.me at 4 p.m.