Exhibition explores blended identities in a globalized world

Michael Hodges, The Detroit News

April 2, 2008

 

Immigration and its jarring impact on identity take center stage at the Oakland University Art Gallery through April 13 with the provocative and handsome show, “Revolutionizing Cultural Identity: Photography and the Changing Face of Immigration.”

Say “immigration,” of course, and many Americans instantly think of the U.S.-Mexican border.

But exhibition curator Claude Baillargeon says he wanted to steer clear of that tortured issue. Instead, he focused on a different aspect of the world’s increasingly scrambled population — the ways in which many of us now bear overlapping ethnic and racial identities, both in how we look and how our respective cultural roots tug at us.

The logic behind at least some of these photographs is that “pure” racial or ethnic identity has long gone the way of the Victrola. We’re all mutts now.

“This show is not about politics — it’s about identity,” says Baillargeon, a soft-spoken French-Canadian who teaches art and art history at Oakland University.

Baillargeon put out a call to 11 Canadian and American photographers — most of them children of immigrants — to contribute works that dealt with the individual and international migration.

The results are striking and remind the viewer how layered modern identity really is.

The resultant confusion when race and ethnicity are put through the Cuisinart is, perhaps, most striking in “The Hapa Project,” a huge series of photos by Santa Barbara photographer Kip Fulbeck. (“Hapa” is a Hawaiian term, for many years derogatory, meaning “half” that he says has lately been adopted by many of mixed Asian and Pacific Island heritage.)

Fulbeck shot 1,200 volunteers of “Hapa” background — the sorts of people who used to have to choose one grandparent over another on the U.S. Census when checking the “Race” box. (In 2000, the government allowed you to check multiple identities for the first time.)

The “Hapa” portraits are almost all identical in set-up. No clothing intrudes to set one face apart from the other. All the subjects are shot from their naked shoulders on up. All stare straight into the camera — reminiscent, suggests Baillargeon, of the dehumanizing photographs 19th-century anthropologists took of “natives” in Africa or Indonesia.

But in this case, the effect isn’t dehumanizing so much as leveling — a visual reminder, when these are lined up on the gallery’s wall, of our essential sameness.

Asked the question they’ve heard all their lives — “What are you?” — Fulbeck’s subjects scrawled their answers beneath each of their portraits.

“I am a person of color,” says one young woman with Amer-Asian eyes and striking blond hair who lists her ancestry as Chinese, Japanese, German, Hungarian and English.

“I am not half-‘white,'” she adds. “I am not half-‘Asian.’ I am a whole ‘other.'”

A bronze-skinned young man whose background is Japanese, French, Chinese, Irish, Swedish and Sioux, writes, “What am I? I am exactly the same as every other person in 2500.”