Barbara Keer, Chicago Splash Magazine

April 18, 2010

A friend of mine invited me to join her for the opening of a very special photographic exhibit.  Presented by the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, Chicago Cultural Alliance and The Field Museum, the exhibit, Kip Fulbeck: part asian – 100% hapa, opens doors to the mind and offers a new way of thinking about identity.  I found the talk by photographer Kip Fulbeck and his exhibit fascinating and uplifting.  What he shows and what he had to say feels so true and honest.

As our society consists more and more of individuals that are multicultural or of  “fusion cultures” , the question arises, “What are you?”  Kip sees the need to celebrate their freshness and diverse styles. He has developed a unique, exciting and  effective approach.  Kip Fulbeck’s moving exhibition, “The Hapa Project”, expresses the beauty of multiracial children through portraits taken from the collarbone up, unsmiling, without jewelry, devoid of any clues as to class or social identity. Each subject answers that question “What are you?’’ in their own handwriting.

When my friend and I contemplated what we would respond to this question, we had difficulty coming up with a possible response.  So, we were very impressed with the honest, fresh, clear and sometimes funny responses that accompany the photos.

The collection which runs until September 6, 2010, is fun, offering a fresh, new approach to ideas of race, culture and identity. It is at once intimate and beautiful. “hapa”, originally a derogatory label derived from the Hawaiian word for “half”, has been embraced as a term of pride by many whose mixed-race heritage includes Asian or Pacific Rim ancestry. The number of hapa in America is now in the millions.  Kip’s goal is to “foster positive identity formation and self-image in multiracial individuals, especially children, giving them a sense of self, pride, and belonging”.

One of the special features of the exhibit is new to the Field Museum.  There is an interactive feature that invites viewers to add their own photographs and self descriptions to the collection on view.

The following from the Field Museums Members Newsletter is such a lovely explanation of this exhibit that I chose to share it with Chicago Splash Magazine readers:

Explaining Yourself: New Marae Gallery Exhibition Explores Perception and Heritage

By Janet Hong, Project Developer for Exhibitions

If you’re not immediately identifiable as belonging to one ethnic type, you might often get asked, “What are you?”  A full answer could take a while—particularly for someone whose ancestry is partly Asian or Pacific Islander—so sometimes the answer is kept simple.  Japanese + Irish.  Hawaiian+ Cuban.  However, a complete answer would describe a complexity of social and personal identities, not to mention the experience of growing up with people always asking you to explain yourself.

To delve into this experience, artist Kip Fulbeck photographed diverse people who identify themselves as partly Asian—adults and kids, male and female, from all walks of life.  The resulting exhibition kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa presents his quietly exuberant and utterly engrossing photographic portraits.  Just as importantly, the volunteer subjects also handwrote answers to the question “What are you?”  Their answers are thoughtful, absolutely individual, and often quite funny.

To Fulbeck (who describes himself as Chinese, English, and Irish), hand-written responses were crucial: “We homo sapiens have been making marks for 35,000 years … Handwriting is as telling as the words we choose to write.”  One woman recounts how her Chinese father first met her German mother in the 1950s, offering her a ride home in a Buick.  One boy writes, “I am part Chinese and part Danish.  I don’t usually tell people I am Danish though, because they think I’m a pastry.”  One gentleman sums up, “I am half Japanese and half Jewish   I am the All-American Boy.”

The entire project demonstrates why many now embrace the term hapa, a Hawaiian word meaning “half” that originally carried derogatory connotations, but now is often used with satisfaction and humor to mean a person with partial Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry.  To Fulbeck, the terms “mixed”, “multiracial”, “part asian”, and “hapa” are all okay with him, but points out that “everyone has a right to self-define and that’s a personal decision.  For many of us hapas and other mixes, there is no perfect term.  Language is constantly moving as words evolve and are redefined, so something negative can be reclaimed as a positive.”

In the age of a multiracial United States president and also in a year of the U.S. census (for which none of us have to check a box labeled “other” anymore), all of us are contemplating more than ever how our ethnic and cultural backgrounds contribute to shaping us.  And for all Americans, doesn’t the question “What are you?” yield interesting answers?

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