“What are you?”
Kip Fulbeck heard that question all of his life. If you ask him now, he would answer: filmmaker, artist, poet, guitarist, surfer, biker and ocean lifeguard. And, making his mother happy, he would add, university professor. But that’s not the answer most people are looking for, said Fulbeck.
People are curious about his looks, as they are not easily identified. He has been mistaken for Hispanic, Filipino and Middle Eastern. But he’s a “hapa,” a Hawaiian slang term meaning half Asian/Pacific and half something else. In the case of Fulbeck, half Cantonese, half English-Irish-Welsh-American.
Over his lifetime, the inquiry on his ethnicity was so ubiquitous that it inspired Fulbeck to respond, not with exasperation, but with creativity. Among his responses is the Hapa Project — the effort that has earned him the widest attention so far.
He produced a series of 1,200 photographs of hapas from around the country. It took three years to complete. And at the end, more than 100 of the images were compiled in a compelling book, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa.” That led to a traveling exhibition that is currently on display at the Mandeville Gallery at Union College through Sunday, Feb. 3.
The 30 giclee prints insist that there are no absolutes — every hapa is far more than his or her DNA.
“It’s about questioning preconceived notions,” said Fulbeck, a 42-year-old who teaches art at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “I want people to be a little more conscious.” And, as he indicates in the exhibition text, open to ambiguity, which he says is more interesting than a label of, say, conservative or Jewish or female or black.
While seeking depth in humanity, Fulbeck depicts hapas as normal, everyday people. And he does it with an intimacy that is surprising as he captures each of his subjects with uniformity. Every subject is shot straight on, head and shoulders only, in front of a white backdrop. All ages, from toddlers to the elderly, stare straight into his lens. Some crack a slight smile. But most have a blank expression. No clothes are visible.
“I wanted the photographs to be as neutral as possible,” said Fulbeck by phone. “I didn’t want makeup, glasses, jewelry, clothes. I didn’t want them to have a forced expression. I didn’t want any identifiers. I wanted them as bland as possible.”
Individuality is left up to the subjects who, after they pose for Fulbeck, answer the question “What are you?” Their responses are written in their own hand under the photos.
Some are curt. “Queer Eurasian” or “I am a person.” One woman listed who she is and who she isn’t. “I’m a student, daughter, funny, sensitive. . . . I’m not tall, vegetarian, single . . .” Others answers are poignant. “I’m a very little boy in fifth grade that has no friends.” Still others, narrative, “My last boyfriend told me he liked me because of my race. So I dumped him.”
Each reveals the subject’s sense of self, as well as a measure of their acceptance in the world at large.
Issue of acceptance
Since childhood, acceptance was an issue for Fulbeck. As a Chinese-American in Corvina, Calif., he felt he didn’t fit in. At home, with his Chinese mother and his Chinese half-siblings, he was considered “the white kid” because he didn’t speak the language. When his family went to a Chinese restaurant, waiters handed him a fork or complimented him on mastering chopsticks.
Then he went to school. “I would get beaten up because I was the Chink. I was called a Chinaman or half-breed,” said Fulbeck. “I made the book I would have liked to have as a kid.”
The idea for the book simmered in his mind for years. It grew out of his own experience at UC San Diego as an art major in the late 1980s. He created a video project on being hapa and the conflicts, internal and otherwise, it creates. At the end of his presentation, his class burst into applause.
Exploring hapa culture became his compulsion, inspiring a novel “Paper Bullets,” stage performances and several films. The 1991 video “Banana Split” is still hailed as “a classic of the video essay genre.”
It also gave him his first public recognition beyond the UC campus.
But Fulbeck was reluctant to follow through on a photo series; “I thought it was too much work.”
His ex-girlfriend convinced him that he had to do it before someone else did. He knew she was right. So he announced his intentions on his Web site, giving an itinerary of dates and cities and asking for hapa volunteers to sit for his camera. Fulbeck feared no one would show. At his first stop in San Francisco, 30 were waiting at the door. He went onto photograph hapas from coast-to-coast.
“I got a huge response. I think people wanted to share their feelings, because we don’t live in a culture that celebrates who we are.”
The volunteers instantly bonded. “It was electric. They would say, ‘Oh, you took piano lessons, too?’ There was a similarity of experience, even though they were vastly different. There were a lot of parallels.”
At Union College, the exhibition, which also was previously on view at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, has generated a lot of interest. Visitation has been up at the gallery. And when Fulbeck gives a talk at the gallery on Thursday, Jan. 31, it is expected the gallery will be brimming with guests.
Feeling like outsider
When asked why he thinks his photos have drawn so much
attention, Fulbeck said everyone can relate to feeling like an outsider.
“We can identify with the fat kid, the poor kid or the kid with the lisp,” said Fulbeck.
The finishing touch on each photo is almost imperceptible. In small print, the heritage of the person in the portrait is revealed — “Chinese/Scottish,” “Japanese/African-American,” “Filipino/Norwegian.”
“It’s in small type because it is not important,” Fulbeck said. “It’s not name-that-Asian game. The important thing is we are all idiosyncratic.”
Just like the rest of us. So in the end, the question should not be “What are you?” but “Who are you?”
“Identity is a distinctly private, conscious and ongoing process,” said Fulbeck. “I’d like to think that for some of the participants, going through the process of the shoot and statement helped them to clarify their thoughts. I think the larger impact is on the viewer, seeing the book and/or the exhibit.”
The Hapa Project: Portraits by Kip Fulbeck
WHERE: Mandeville Gallery, Nott Memorial, Union College, Schenectady
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sunday, Feb. 3
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 388-6004 or www.union/edu/gallery. Also, go to www.seaweedproductions.com/hapa/. Fulbeck will give at talk at the Mandeville Gallery on Thursday, Jan. 31.