As a child growing up East Coast of Saint Paul, Pao Houa Her loved to listen to her grandmother’s stories of Laos – of the lush jungles that hold mysteries, of the sensation of a tiger’s gaze as she walked towards her garden, of how she found love. In her mind, a fantasy formed around this country, from which many Hmong people, including her and her family, fled during the Vietnam War.
Visiting years later, she felt disenchanted with what seemed like a modernized, ordinary place. As a Yale-trained photographer—in fact, the first Hmong person to earn an MFA from college—she decided to create her grandmother’s version of herself, through the lens of his camera. These photos of Laos, she says, are “delusional”. They rumble with flowers and mist. But it actually corresponds to a piece of advice – in fact, a complete artistic philosophy – that a photographer friend once gave him: “Be crazy!”
It seems to be paying off. This spring, Her was part of the Whitney Biennial, a New York survey of artists on the verge of becoming big business. Now 40 and based in Blaine, Her has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions over the past decade, mostly at Twin Cities galleries. She is known for her grand concepts: portraits and still lifes inspired by Hmong dating sites, or her mother’s silk flower stash, or the forgotten heritage of Hmong veterans. She plays with artifice, digitally blurring reality or posing refugees with fake plants and nostalgic backdrops, which is part of a Hmong tradition of staging idyllic Laotian scenes in studio sets. For one project, Her created a lenticular image of a tiger, so that his gaze tracked viewers around the room. It replayed a ghostly story her grandmother was telling: Was it Her’s grandfather who had turned into this beast, to visit her after she died in the war?
Beginning July 28, she will show new works in her first solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The project examines the lands of Northern California where Hmong farmers grew cannabis amid tight government surveillance, ecological degradation and racism. It started, quite simply, as an alternative to portraiture. “During the pandemic, I couldn’t photograph anyone, right?” But now it expands Her’s mission, as described at the Whitney Museum: “to break down the larger story of what it means to be a Hmong American into discrete moments in time.”
A long lens
I meet She on a Sunday afternoon at the Hmongtown market in St. Paul. She’s photographed herself before, but I’ve never seen her smile – jovial, friendly, with the poise one would expect from the eldest of seven children. She wears a black T-shirt, strappy sandals, khaki pants, and a black fanny pack, with coral red on her fingernails and toenails. After she insists on buying us lunch, we head through the crowded indoor bazaar to a cozy, low-ceilinged dining room.
She opens the polystyrene take-out box containing prime rib, black rice and papaya salad. “There’s something really modest about the work being done in this space.” Four light boxes, recently mounted on the walls, contain large-scale photos she has taken over the past few years. They shine from within: a green tangle of Laotian jungle; a row of faux flowers; a handful of poppies, which recall a time of economic and political power for the Hmong, she says. The Walker has two of these photos in his collection. But here, with children chatting at the table next to us, she says happily, “It doesn’t look like an exhibition.
On one side, I catch up with her in a moment of triumph. She left behind her restless youth – bad grades, school fights – and rose in the rarefied art world, contrary to the “survival mode” that limited the lives of her refugee parents.
On the other hand, it’s an incredibly difficult time. Her husband, Ya Yang, died suddenly in March 2021 of a cerebral hemorrhage. The two met as teenagers, and he was the first person she said “anything and everything” to. When Her received a text from her gallery owner about the Whitney Museum’s interest in her work, she was in bed with Yang. Later, to celebrate, they brought out a bottle of champagne from his uncle’s liquor store.
For Her’s latest project, the two first traveled to Northern California on family business, taking Her’s niece and nephew (whom she still cares for) to visit their birth parents. She began photographing the area and found a New York Times article about the area’s “green rush” – a post-legalization boom in cannabis grown by Hmong farmers, echoing the Hmong history of cannabis cultivation. opium. She felt inspired.
But finishing the job was difficult. She is used to reviewing photos on her computer at home, with Yang’s hand on her shoulder. “He’s always a guy who thinks big,” she says. “He’s always very much like, ‘Just keep doing what you need to do to get where you need to go, and when you get there, you can figure out what the next steps are. “”
In a sense, Her’s life started right there: needing to figure out his next steps.
His earliest memory is of a Thai refugee camp. She was lost. His parents had dissolved into crowds of refugees. The ground underfoot was orange-yellow and almost infinitely grainy.
She has no memories of Laos, where she was born in 1982. When she was 3, her family traveled to St. Paul after spending time in three Thai camps. Her parents worked many jobs and were rarely home, she said. When they supervised cleaning duties at the Civic Center, they didn’t return until the early hours – although Her’s father had recorded old Hmong folk stories on cassette tapes, so that she and her sister could listen to them in bed .
The fables were fantastic, moral and strange. His favorite involved an unsightly bear that transformed into a handsome man every night. And they triggered something in Her; she wanted to tell her own stories. Writing was difficult, with English as a second language. But, luckily, his father provided another method: he liked to buy expensive cameras, with instructions that sometimes came in Japanese. He transmitted them to Her, who understood them. At school, she used her lunch money to buy her way into the dark room. Photography was the only class she didn’t skip.
High school, in Humboldt and Highland Park, was otherwise difficult. “I had, like, an identity crisis,” she says, “because I didn’t want to be Hmong, and I wanted to be as American as possible, but I also didn’t know what it was like and what that entailed.” She hung out with ‘not the best people.’ The moment she was kicked out for fighting, she realized she was on a dangerous path. ‘There were a lot of expectations…that I would I be that person, or that I would be like all the other Hmong girls who dropped out of school.” She got her GED instead. But later, after her best friend graduated from college, she got a another dark thought: “I don’t do anything substantial with my life.”
She enrolled in community college, planning to become a paralegal. As fate would have it, however, a photography class introduced her to the work of Wing Young Huie. The Minnesota-based photographer had captured images of the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, and in them, recognized members of his family. She had never seen the Hmong represented in this way. In one, his grandmother eats with a group of other women at her cousin’s kitchen table, empty Budweiser cans revealing that the men had already eaten. “I realized that the thing that [Huie] was the kind of thing that really interested me as a storyteller.
She transferred to Minneapolis College of Art and Design, then entered Yale. Influences arrived in the form of Diane Arbus, August Sanders, Nikki Smith and Alec Soth. Rather than documentary photography, she would compose clichés like poetry. And she would submit it to the Hmong community, returning home from New Haven, Connecticut, on weekends to complete her projects. The year she graduated, Huie curated Her’s first solo exhibition, at Gordon Park Gallery in St. Paul. He called his perspective “unique and unprecedented.”
The prestige is lost on her parents, she says. After Yale, her father even gave her a brochure for a dental hygienist program. But they are supportive and “super happy that I want to stay in school,” she adds.
For the Walker exhibition, “Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the sky,” She studied photography of the American West, full of promise and romance, by Ansel Adams, Timothy O’Sullivan, Eugene Smith and Carleton Watkins. Using Google Earth, she will play with the aesthetics of government surveillance. An installation of images and sounds will evoke “kwv-txhiaj”, a Hmong form of sung poetry. And the light boxes will mimic alluring advertising displays, against the backdrop of California’s appeal to Hmong farmers.
Now, without the stability of her husband’s job in tech, Her hopes a tenure-track position at the University of Minnesota this fall will give her the security to continue taking artistic risks. “Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder,” she said. She spans genres, materials and forms, even taking it as a compliment that The Nation has described her pieces at the Whitney as “sometimes incompatible photographic idioms.”
Does she feel like she’s “succeeded”? As project-minded as she was, she didn’t feel the “high” of the Whitney. She didn’t have time to cry either. “He passed away, and then I kind of carried on knowing I had to get things done.”
After the Walker, Her has left life open for now. But she knows the future she would like to see: one where her target audience, Hmong Americans, embrace the privilege of art appreciation. “We are still developing a language to talk about the arts,” she says. Although, at Hmongtown Market, its lightboxes can offer a midpoint, evoking something especially for them. “They’re like windows, into something that might not be real,” she says – or, like those stories from Laos, it’s as real as anything.