Visualizing What It Means To Be Mixed

Kristen Williamson, blurdigital.com

September 1, 2008

As is sometimes the case, a life of self-questioning has helped Kip Fulbeck find creative ways to begin to define himself and to facilitate answers for many others through his work.

It’s hard to say exactly where a person’s going to find inspiration for their work. For artist Kip Fulbeck, he sticks to what he knows—who he is.

Growing up though, things weren’t always so clear-cut for Fulbeck, whose mother is from China and whose father is of English, Irish and Welsh descent. Fulbeck’s four siblings are all Chinese, born before his mother was widowed while still in China. Coming from a very Chinese upbringing, where the family would go get dim sum on the weekends when he just wanted to have McDonald’s, Fulbeck began questioning his identity at a young age.

At home and among his family, Fulbeck was considered “the white kid,” yet at school he was labeled “the Asian kid.” “It was a complete 180,” he said.

He distinctly remembers one formative experience at school when his class was tracing their heritage by using a wall-sized map of the world. Each child, Fulbeck explained, had to go up in front of the class and put push pins in the places marking their heritage.”I watched as Western Europe filled up,” he said.

When it was his turn, he got up, put his pins in England, Wales and Ireland, and then heard snickers as he had to walk all the way across the room to put his pin in China. Needless to say, the experience was traumatic and stuck with him. “I never forgot how that felt.”

In exploring his identity, Fulbeck went through what he calls the “typical self-hatred.” “Anything that you deny long enough, the pendulum swings really hard the other way,” said Fulbeck, describing the period in his life where he became very Asian, “but after a while, you center.”

For Fulbeck, that centering force happened his senior year of college right before graduation. With a final project in an art class looming over his head, while dealing with the death of a friend, the end of his swimming career, the placement of his sick grandmother in a nursing home against his family’s wishes, and compounded by incessant questioning about what he was going to do with his life, Fulbeck was beyond the point of caring about grades.

For his project, he just wrote out everything that was on his mind—school, his friend, swimming, people asking what he was going to do with his life—and coupled it with photos of his grandmother. The piece was titled “Just Stand Still” and people told him that it was the best work he’d ever done. At that point, Fulbeck realized that being completely honest about who he was would help him achieve more success in his work.

As an artist, filmmaker, novelist and slam poet, Fulbeck uses every medium as a different way of expressing his creativity. His work has always had an autobiographical slant to it due to his unique perspective and experience—something that he says he’ll never be able to escape because it will always be a part of him.

In 2001, Fulbeck began The Hapa Project, an idea that had been ruminating in his mind since the age of eight when he wondered if anyone else was going through the same self-questioning as he was.

“I made the book that I would have liked to have had as a kid,” said Fulbeck. For the project, he photographed 1,200 people, all Hapa—a slang term that describes Mixed people with partial Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Everyone was photographed from the shoulders up—completely blank—with no clothes or jewelry showing. They then hand wrote personal responses to the question, “What are you?” to accompany their photograph.

“I realized I was tapping into something bigger than myself,” said Fulbeck. Part Asian, 100% Hapa, was published in 2006 and the exhibit premiered at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles. At the exhibit, he decided to leave a space where people could take Polaroids of themselves and continue what he had started.

The exhibit contained enough space for 500 photographs, which he thought would be sufficient to last the five-month showing, but it filled up the first night. “We all have this need to tell our own stories,” said Fulbeck, “and our stories are not being told adequately in the mainstream media.”

Fulbeck is a professor of art at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he teaches interdisciplinary classes on subjects that include the spoken word, personal narrative and the exploration of identity. He also travels to high schools, giving presentations and reaching out to students two generations removed from him.

According to Fulbeck, the presentations are a mixture of slam poetry, interactive powerpoints and a viewing of one of his films, Lilo and Me, which compares photographs of Fulbeck as a child to “ethnically ambiguous” Disney characters.

For all his work exploring and celebrating the Mixed racial identity, Fulbeck received the first Loving Prize at the inaugural Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival this past June in Los Angeles.

Up next for Fulbeck is another book. The subject matter this time—Mixed kids. The book will be in a similar format as Part Asian, 100% Hapa, with the kids choosing their own poses and handwriting their own responses to the question, “What are you?” On the success and attention he’s encountered in doing these pieces, Fulbeck just said, “I leave a blank slate and let people be geniuses.”

In addition to Fulbeck’s prolific work in multi-media, you may want to check out his most recent project, Permanence: Tattoo Portraits. Fulbeck explores, in much the same way as his project Part Asian, 100% Hapa, how tattoo art has jumped from fringe expression to a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. This is a book of portraits of notable people who have chosen this form of self-expression, with their personal stories written in their own hands.