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Are You Hapa? This Exhibition Invites You To Explore Identity, Whether You're Mixed-Race Or Not

A new exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum explores mixed-race identity through portraits and personal reflection. (Photo by Quincy Surasmith)
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"What are you?"

It was in 2001 that artist Kip Fulbeck started asking people that question as he shot their portraits. His subjects, like him, identified as "Hapa," or mixed-race. The question was meant to elicit a sort of "statement of identity," or how they saw themselves in the world.

Some of the responses: "I am a daily contest to guess what I am." "I'm a girl. I'm American. I'm seven. I am Hanna." "My last boyfriend told me he liked me because of my race. So I dumped him."

Fulbeck's initial "Hapa Project" included about 1,200 people and led to the 2006 book, Part Asian, 100% Hapa. In a new exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, " - 15 Years of the Hapa Project," Fulbeck returns to the original participants 15 years later, with updated portraits and statements.

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"The project isn't even about race," Fulbeck said. "The project is about identity. It just uses race as a starting point to talk about it."

Artist Kip Fulbeck. (Photo by Quincy Surasmith)

Fulbeck told LAist he wanted to discover other people who identify this way and also show how they are not necessarily alike.

"People always say, 'Oh, you finally found your tribe.' No. We have nothing in common besides we couldn't fill out a form correctly, because it says pick one box," he said. "I think showing that diversity of the 7+ million Hapas in the U.S. was really important to me."

The term "hapa" has its roots in the Hawaiian language and means "mixed" or "part." That includes referring to someone with mixed Native Hawaiian heritage. Over time, it has been adopted by many other people of mixed ethnic background, in particular those in Japanese American and other Asian American communities. Fulbeck's personal understanding of the term has evolved over time.

"When I grew up [in] 1970 L.A. County, my cousin told me, 'You're Hapa.' So I grew up thinking, 'Oh, that must mean you're Chinese-English-Irish,'" Fulbeck said.

But eventually he met others who identified as Hapa, and then he lived in Hawai'i, where he said the definition is completely different. "I've had people tell me, 'Why'd you include some of these people that are Asian-Asian? That's not Hapa.' I was like, 'You don't get to tell them who they are.'"

(Photo by Quincy Surasmith)

Fulbeck kept a consistent format and aesthetic for each photo throughout the project.

"Everyone's shot the same way," he said. "Collarbone up, looking straight at the camera, no expression, no jewelry, no glasses, no heavy makeup. I wanted it as neutral as possible."

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Then he'd ask them to handwrite their statement of identity.

"Writing a statement on a blank piece of paper -- who you are, that's a big question," Fulbeck said. "Some people, they come in with 10 statements already written. I realized it's really profound. Sometimes we've never been asked. That's all I'm asking people to do: be vulnerable, be yourself."

On select days, visitors to the exhibit can participate by getting their portrait taken and writing their own statement to go along with it.

LAist contributor Quincy Surasmith got his portrait taken and wrote his own response to the question, "What are you?" (Photo by Quincy Surasmith)

"I always feel like identity is a completely personal process and you're right to call yourself what you want to call yourself," Fulbeck said. "No one gets to tell you who you are, and so basically I said if you want to fall under this rubric of what you think Hapa is, then be part of the project."

For Fulbeck, marks the end of the Hapa Project.

"I hope that people that are not Hapa see this thing and start realizing that the world is much, much bigger than this black/white paradigm that we live in," Fulbeck said. "I want people to come in to see that the world is so much bigger and that our stories matter. I do love when I hear from the many, many people that told me that the project changed their lives. That's completely humbling. It's why I made the project."

" - 15 years of the Hapa Project," runs through October 28th at the Japanese American National Museum, in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.

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