The Hapa Project was groundbreaking in so many ways and it remains the most extensive artistic survey of mixed heritage identity, among those with partial Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. Playing on the ever-present, “What are you?” question, each participant was allowed to self-identify, and this time they were speaking first. This time it was an assertion, rather than a response to interrogation. And this time they were all speaking in one place.
Each piece consists of three parts; a portrait, a handwritten response, and an identification of cultural heritage. Since 2001, over 1200 people have participated in the project, with a selection published in the book, “Part Asian·100% Hapa,” whose cover is pictured above.
Photographed by Kip Fulbeck, the portraits keep to a simple format; head and shoulders are framed against a white background, with no makeup, clothing, or jewelry to attract attention away from the face. Each portrait is displayed with their response as originally written, and the visual impact of the handwriting- drawings, cross-outs, misspellings, and all- lends weight and personality to the words. Ethnic identifiers, unobtrusively printed above each description, satisfy a natural curiosity while avoiding the politics of percentage.
I first encountered the project in 2008, when a selection of portraits was on display at the Asian/Pacific/American Gallery at New York University. There was a palpable energy in the room and the sense that a lot of people, myself included, had been waiting a long time for this.
One of the things the project has done best is to represent the diversity of the Hapa community while supporting its continued development. There is something unique about growing up mixed, inhabiting a ‘third space,’ distinct from the ones of our parents. Kip Fulbeck said it best in the Introduction, “What’s interesting is ambiguity. What’s interesting is the haziness, the blurrings, the indefinables, the space and tension between people, the area between the margins that pushes us to stop, to question” (2006:13).