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New JANM Exhibition Further Explores Hapa Identity

The exhibition features side-by-side photos and statements of Hapa people about 15 years apart.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Artist Kip Fulbeck returns to the Japanese American National Museum with “ — 15 years of the hapa project,” which opened April 7 and will run through Oct. 28.

Fulbeck, who is Chinese on his mother’s side and English, Irish and Welsh on his father’s side, has been exploring the multiracial/multiethnic experience through the Hapa Project, which he created in 2001. The new exhibition is a follow-up to “kip fulbeck: part Asian, 100% hapa,” which was shown at JANM in 2006.

JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs discussed the exhibition at a members-only preview on April 6. She was introduced by Meloni Hallock, a member of the JANM Board of Trustees.

“JANM has had as long, very cherished relationship with Kip Fulbeck,” said Burroughs. “He’s an extraordinary artist. He’s an author. He’s an educator and an activist … He traveled around the country and photographed over 1,200 volunteers who identified as hapa … The goals of the project, which you see running through the thread over the 15 years, was that it was to promote awareness and recognition of the millions of Hapas who live in the United States, to give voice to multiracial people and others who were previously ignored. It was also a very powerful means of fostering positive identity formation in multiracial children.”

She noted that the 2006 exhibition — which ranks alongside “Hello Kitty” as one of the most popular shows that JANM has ever presented — featured “photographic portraits of multiracial individuals of all ages and from all walks of life, photographs that were taken from the collar up, unadorned, no jewelry, no clothing, no glasses, and without any personal expression, and the images were shared with each participant’s response in her or his own handwriting to the question ‘What are you?’ …

Kip Fulbeck, creator of “,” and Ann Burroughs, JANM president and CEO.

“With ‘,’ Kip has gone back to those same boys and girls and men and women from the first exhibition and rephotographed them. All of those individuals have written new statements in response to ‘What are you?’ … that extraordinary question which shapes so much of who we are, and it’s a question that so many of us aren’t able to articulate. So the pairing of the original photographs and statements with the contemporary ones provides a fascinating opportunity to experience their physical changes as well as how their outlooks on the world and their views of themselves have evolved.”

Burroughs added, “There’s an opportunity for all of you to participate in the exhibition, to be part of the exhibition. We have people in the gallery taking instant photographs of you, to which you can add your own personal statements and place it on the wall.”

Fulbeck, who was joined on the stage by his son Jack and daughter Pepper, also stressed the importance of active participation. “I designed the second gallery to be interactive … The more of you guys can do it the better, because I really want that place to start hopping and it’s actually a really fun exercise to do.”

He said of the subjects of his exhibition, “I feel like I kind of cheat sometimes because my projects are set up to let you guys come in and be geniuses, and then I somehow get credit for it. That’s not really fair because basically the work exists because of the beauty … and the brilliance of the participants that come in, what they say. They’re so honest and so brave and just so open with what they talk about …

“When I started the Hapa Project, I did it because I was trying to make the book that I wished was in existence … when I was growing up. When I got that question that all of us have had to fill out on a questionnaire or school form … where they say, ‘Race — pick one,’ that was asking me to pick Mom or Dad, and that wasn’t really a fair question to ask a little kid. And then later, they had ‘Other,’ which wasn’t much better, and then they would say, ‘Please explain.’ I just wrote in, ‘No.’”

In 2000, when Fulbeck was 35, the U.S. Census allowed people to check more than one box for their race. He described that as “a victory in terms of like a glacier moving an inch.”

But on the cultural front, Fulbeck said that his work and that of other Hapa artists — such as playwright Velina Hasu Houston, who was at the reception — is making a difference. “I saw ‘Allegiance’ and that was amazing, but that’s a once-in-a-lifetime event … We need the artists, we need the writers, we need the playwrights and we need the actors to tell our stories.”

Visitors look at photos and statements of new subjects who were not in the previous exhibition.

Fulbeck introduced his mother Mary, who is in her 90s. “She met my dad at USC and when they were married, their marriage was still illegal in a bunch of states … That’s not long ago, that’s my lifetime. So these are things that are going on right now.”

When he talks to kids about how mixed marriages were once illegal, he tells them, “You’ll be able to tell people there was a time when this was illegal or this was illegal, and that’s going to change … Look at what the kids are doing with gun control.”

One part of the exhibition includes new people who were not in the previous show. Fulbeck recalled, “I did eight shoots here in L.A. at this museum. I was only going to do one. I did eight and every one filled up within an hour … We announced it and boom, the spots were gone.”

Finding all of the people from the first exhibition was more of a challenge because email addresses and cell phone numbers changed, he said. “If you go back 15, 20 years, just think of your email address. Most people had emails that were AOL accounts or Hotmail accounts … I felt like a lot of this work was really being a private eye … stalking and finding them.

“And when I did find some people, they didn’t remember doing it because they were 5 years old [at the time]. They go, ‘I’m in a book?’”

Those he was able to find were “really energized” about participating again. Eight of them attended the exhibition’s public opening on April 7, which included musical performances, poetry readings and crafts.

JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. General admission is $12 adults, $6 students and seniors, free for members and children under age five. Admission is free to everyone on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month from noon to 8 p.m. Closed Mondays. For more information, visit or call (213) 625-0414.

Rafu photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO

Reflections on Identity

2006: “Naturally, I feel just a bit different every day. A little older, wiser maybe. Sometimes more Japanese. Sometimes I just gotta have a sauna and some buttered bread. Whatever I feel about myself, it’s always good. I always feel lucky to be who I am.”

2018: “In dangerous times, it’s important to stand strong in who you are. I’ve never felt more fierce.”

2006: “As my sister and I were growing up, our Italian-born mother constantly reminded us of how special we were as mixed-blood children. She would occasionally compare us to mixed-breed dogs, whom she observed were smarter and happier than pure-breds.”

2018: “As I grow older, I often think of what my parents went through as a mix-married couple in the mid-1940s. At first, m mother’s Italian family worried about her future being married to a Japanese American raised in Japan. They quickly warmed up to my dad, especially after I was born. I like to think that I helped unite my parents’ families.

“Dad passed away 20 years ago but Mom is still alive at 91. She recently asked, ‘Is it okay that you were half-and-half?’ ‘I’m 69 years old, you’re just asking now?’ Yes, it was okay.”

2006: “Black Japanese, Japanese Black, either, or, both, all the same time. Sweet potato pie, katsudon, turnip greens, nori — food for the soul, food for the heart, food for thought … for you, not me … being Hapa (or Double) is who/what I am … how about you? Teriyaki chitlins anybody?”

2018: “For me being mixed is … it just is … It is who I am … Being mixed is my normal. Neither hard, nor easy … just is … Son of a Black man and a Japanese mother … son of a Japanese mother and a Black father. I am … nothing more, nothing less, just am.”

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