This story was first published on July 25, 2022, when the exhibit first opened.
Pao Houa Her’s parents worked so often when she was a child that she and her siblings barely saw them. However, before her father departed for his second job each evening, he left a tape player and cassette tapes of stories he had recorded next to Pao Houa and her sister’s bedside.
This was his way of staying connected to his children when he could not be home.
“I think that’s where my love for stories comes from,” says Her.
Today, Her and I are at Mi-Sant Kitchen and Bakery, a Vietnamese eatery in Roseville, Minnesota, talking about her unorthodox path into the art world and her upcoming solo show at the Walker Art Center. Eating banh mi sandwiches–that fusion of Vietnamese and French food–seems like a fitting meal as we speak about Her’s work, which interrogates the tangled relationship between the Hmong and American cultures as well as the past’s persistent hold on the present Hmong world.
Full disclosure here: I’ve known Her, 40, for years. I’ve even written poetry and text to accompany some of her previous art. When Sahan Journal asked me to interview her in advance of her upcoming show at the Walker Art Center, I was ecstatic about the opportunity to delve deeper into her work. I genuinely believe Her is one of the most successful Hmong visual artists in the United States, but also one of the most invisible ones within the actual Hmong community.
Her’s photographs often depict the Hmong diaspora through a subtle but subversive lens: portraits of elders against backdrops of fake flowers, Hmong veterans who fought for the United States in the Vietnam War decorated with medals of their own creation, potted plastic flowers, and opium poppies against concrete backdrops in the Laotian countryside. Her’s work dares to elevate the everyday, to both honor and critique the Hmong world.
Her, who works out of Blaine, Minnesota, doesn’t have a massive social media presence as a “celebrity artist,” but she’s fine with that.
“There’s something really wonderful about being invisible,” she said. “I think that when you are invisible, it’s easier for you to make [art]. Even my closest friends have no idea that I’m like an artist.”
She has already had a big year. This spring, her work was exhibited in New York City at the Whitney Biennial, considered one of the world’s most prestigious contemporary art shows. Her solo show, Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers Of The Sky, opens at the Walker Art Center on July 28 and runs through January 22, 2023. Her will give an opening night talk at 6 p.m.; free tickets to the talk will be made available in the lobby starting at 5 p.m. The museum does not charge admission between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Thursdays.
When asked to describe the Whitney Biennial for people who are not in the visual arts field, Her says, “Somebody said to me that, as an artist, you have this passport and there are these markers of stamps that you want to collect. [The] Biennial is one of the biggest stamps that you want to collect.”
The Whitney Biennial, curated by the Whitney Museum in New York City, is the longest-running survey of American art. Artists are invited to create work two years ahead of the exhibit, and featured artists are lifted up as trendsetters in the contemporary art field.
Kicked out of three high schools, Her eventually landed at Yale
How did a high school dropout get to this place? Her was born in Laos in 1982 and came to the United States when she was three years old. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the eldest of seven siblings. She was kicked out of three different St. Paul public high schools for truancy, but eventually earned her General Educational Diploma.
When most of her peers were getting ready to graduate from college, Her was just beginning college at the age of 21. She was attending Inver Hills Community College in the early 2000s poised to become a paralegal or an attorney when a teacher suggested that she go to the Walker, where the work of Chinese American photographer Wing Young Huie’s “Frogtown” exhibit was on display. Her remembers seeing the promo photo: a young Southeast Asian man sitting, his hands between his legs, getting ready for a haircut.
“I’m completely intrigued because this is the first time I’ve seen a Hmong or a Southeast Asian person being photographed in that way,” she recalls of her reaction to Huie’s photography.
At the exhibit, she saw “her people”–that is, the Hmong people. And much to her surprise, she realized that Huie had also photographed her grandmother and uncle, who were on display at the Walker. The exhibit impressed Her because she knew that Huie had worked hard to gain access to such intimate parts of the Hmong world.
“At that time, I was like, ‘Whoa … this is, like, a way of storytelling. I think I can do this.’ And that completely changed the trajectory of what I would have become,” she says.
Her shifted gears and told her mother, who works at an adult day center for Hmong elders, and her father, a factory worker, she was going to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to become a photographer.
“My mom [was] unsure but, because I was such a horrible high schooler and it took me so long to finish high school, my mom was just like, ‘Okay. Whatever.’”
Her’s first work was shown in 2008 in a group exhibit called Journey Through the Lens at the Hennepin County Government Center. When a community college instructor suggested that Her apply to Yale University School of Art for graduate school, saying, “You probably won’t get in, but try anyway.” She did apply and she got in.
After earning her BFA in photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2009, Her attended Yale University where she earned her MFA in Photography in 2012. After graduate school, she returned to the Twin Cities.
Between 2012 and 2020, Her’s work was featured in thirteen solo exhibits and multiple group exhibits. Her photography has been on display locally at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Franklin Artworks, the Minnesota Museum of Art, the Center for Hmong Studies, The Gordon Parks Gallery, and The Bindery Projects.
Nationally, her work has been on display at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, Illinois, the Camera Club of New York in New York City, and in other galleries in New York and Los Angeles. Her’s photographs have also been featured in group shows in Norway, Thailand, and Singapore.
When asked how Her has been able to make a living in the arts, she credits her husband, Ya Yang, who passed away last year from a brain hemorrhage. The two met in junior high school. When I asked how Yang, a computer programmer, was a part of Her’s journey as an artist, she began by talking about my own relationship with my husband.
“You’re married to a Hmong man,” she says to me. “And knowing the work you do [as an artist] and the kinds of restraints that are put on us in our community, I really admire that. I think about my own husband in the same sense.”
The restraints Her is referring to are Hmong cultural beliefs of what a Hmong woman should be: a good housekeeper, a mother, subservient to her husband and his relatives, and definitely not an artist (too precarious economically and too mysterious as a field). For some in the Hmong community, these beliefs are antiquated. For others, they are still very much true.
It may be easy to say, “Of course, her husband should support her work.” But Her’s comment is a bit like her artwork: the dynamics in her marriage disrupts Hmong stereotypes while, at the same time, acknowledging the history and culture from which she comes.
“I think that had it not been for him giving or allowing me to have space … I don’t think I would be where I am,” she says. “It’s definitely like him saying, ‘You should do this,’ is like encouragement.
“I never had a full time job, but he’s always made sure that we have food to eat, and we had a roof over our head,” Her says. “And he’s the person [who] always said, ‘Things are going to be okay,’ when things weren’t okay. He’s always a person that says, ‘Yes, you should do this. These are the tools that you need or let me help provide these tools so that you can take the risks that you want to take.’ And I think it’s because of them that I’ve been able to have the kind of success that I’ve been able to have.”
Despite professing that she’s never had a full-time job, Her has taught photography in higher education institutions including Macalester College, Anoka Ramsey Community College, and the University of Minnesota where she taught as an adjunct professor for five years. This fall, she’ll return to the University of Minnesota in a tenure track job as Assistant Professor of Photography and Moving Images.
About Hmong people, for Hmong people
Another contributor to her success? Her says, “I will be really transparent and say that I have this very white-traditional-upbringing-like background.”
She is referring to her Ivy League pedigree.
“That has allowed me to be in spaces that have historically maybe not been accessible to Hmong people,” Her says.
When Her began her career, she often pitched her work to museum curators by talking about how “universal” it was.
“I used that word a lot,” she says. “Like, ‘Yes, this is about one people but, really, it’s, like, universal and anybody can do the work and whatever.’ More recently, I have just been like, ‘This work is about Hmong people. And it’s for Hmong people and I’m sorry if you can’t access it because you’re not Hmong, and it doesn’t really matter to me. It isn’t my responsibility to make you care about the work.’”
Her acknowledges that it can be problematic to show work in some venues because they haven’t historically been accessible to marginalized folks, but she thinks about it this way: “I feel like I’m maybe really selfish and … it might sound low–narcissistic, but my hope is that the future generations are gonna be able to research the work and to be critical.”
Koua Yang is a Hmong visual artist working in textiles, photography, and performance. She was earning her MFA from the University of Minnesota when Her was teaching as an adjunct in the visual arts department.
“I don’t know if it still stands true, but every time she shows work at a big institution, she tries to advocate for them purchasing her work to be a part of collections … and that, to me, is like Cardi B making money moves,” Yang says. “She doesn’t want to be exploited and so she comes on her own terms. That’s the kind of thing that isn’t necessarily taught to visual arts students.”
Too often, when artists who come from marginalized backgrounds are invited to be part of a larger institution’s season, they are tokenized. It is not unusual for art institutions to temporarily engage artists from marginalized backgrounds to fill a quota, so Her’s intentionality around advocating to be part of a museum’s permanent collection means there is long-term institutional investment in her work. There’s longevity. There’s a footprint.
Because if readers know nothing about the Hmong, it is that Hmong people do not have a homeland, and because of their fairly young history having a written language, the Hmong have a long history of having their stories told by outsiders. In some cases with the Hmong oral tradition, their stories morphed or even disappeared.
Echoes of the homeland in northern California
What can people expect to see at Her’s upcoming exhibit, Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers of the Sky?
“The work is going to be like landscapes of northern California–this very specific region in northern California that sits on the bed of Mount Shasta,” Her says. “Mount Shasta historically has always been like a haven for marijuana growers, but like in 2013-2014, there’s this guy who went up to northern California, found this plot of land, bought the land, and then parcels it off and gave it away as gifts to Hmong people.”
Her estimates that 4,000 Hmong people live in the area today. During the pandemic, Her couldn’t practice her usual form of photography, which requires close proximity to people. So she and her husband went on a road trip to visit family members. When they arrived in Mount Shasta, she began photographing the landscape.
“I’m interested in sort of thinking about, like, the human footprint or like, our footprint,” Her says. “There’s a lot of layers, right? There’s like, the operation as it is. There’s these environmental compositions. What’s really fascinating is like, in the ‘70s, the California government was trying to give it away. Why? Because the land is useless.
“It’s like this volcano. The land is like limestone, so you can’t use the soil. The water, you can dig, but the water is very salty. It’s very similar to what happened in Laos: When most people were growing opium, they were not given the best place–they had to work on the side of mountains.”
The Hmong are a minority group thought to have originated in southern China, but many dispersed throughout Southeast Asia due to persecution. Historically, the majority groups in each country have marginalized the Hmong and relegated them to living in the least desirable locations, including steep, difficult-to-farm mountainsides.
They have faced similar backlash in Mount Shasta, where the Hmong community has run into conflict with local residents and authorities. Siskiyou County officials tried restricting water delivery to Hmong marijuana farmers. In 2021, Siskiyou County law enforcement officers fatally shot Soobleej Kaub Hawj, 35, when he apparently disobeyed police orders during a wildfire evacuation.
“When Pao was talking about Mount Shasta, she spoke about a big lava fire that wrecked this land that Hmong American reclaimed,” says Matthew Miranda, the Walker’s curatorial fellow in visual arts. “But they used ancestral knowledge around terrace farming that reclaimed this land, but the way the government neglected them is a violence towards Asian Americans.
“This was one of the timeliest bodies of work she can explore right now. She’s doing it in a poetic way instead of showing dead bodies or being sensational.”
Miranda and Victoria Song, the Walker’s associate curator of visual arts, are working on Her’s show.
One of the first things Miranda noticed about Her was that she often invites museum curators to visit Hmongtown Marketplace. The shopping center in St. Paul has food courts and stalls selling all sorts of things including Hmong clothes, medicine, and toys.
“It felt like a legitimate place where her community celebrates joy and culture,” says Miranda.
Hmongtown Marketplace is one location that displays Her’s light boxes, a type of artwork wherein images are lit from behind. Miranda is amazed that both Hmongtown Marketplace and the Walker are displaying Her’s lightboxes at the same time.
“I always enjoy when the artist subverts the white view in museums,” Miranda says. “This was a real break in the art world decorum.”
Miranda says that Her’s landscape photos are a nod to historical ideas: the exclusion of Chinese Americans in the west, the Hmong history of cultivating opium in the mountains of Laos, and the landscape photography of the American West made famous by folks like Ansel Adams, which promoted the American dream.
Part of Her’s reason for showing landscapes is to preserve the anonymity of the people who are cultivating marijuana–some legally and some illegally–as they attempt to achieve the American dream. Her says another reason is, “I’m really interested in the landscape. I’m really interested in the Hmong people–the way they’re living, just like the lifestyle as it relates to our history–our narrative.
“We are continuously given land that nobody wants and have been able to prosper in those areas over and over again. Marijuana growing operations are also like the first time in our recent history where so many people have become illegal millionaires. [I] like hearing stories about how people spend this money, what they do with their money, and the ways in which they’re like, reverting back to their parents. There’s stories about, like, having so much money that they’re like, burying their money, and I remember my dad talking about my grandfather burying silver bars in the ground [in Asia]. So there’s like, all of these connections.”
A look at the other side of life
Whether it is criticism or discourse, Her wants to have more conversations with people about her work, and people’s lives and stories that are lived off-the-record. That unflinching look at the less flattering side of life is an echo from her childhood.
Her’s father recounted popular Hmong stories and folktales in those cassette tapes she listened to as a child.
“There was a story about a bear with big balls,” Her says. “Have you heard of that one?”
I hadn’t. We laugh nonetheless. One of the tenants of Hmong humor is sexual innuendo.
“I don’t think these stories should have been told to children,” says Her.
Like Grimms’ Fairy Tales, many Hmong folktales don’t typically hide the gruesome sides of life. There are no boundaries between stories for children and adults, between humor and trauma.
“Each story had a lesson,” says Her.
What’s next in Her’s journey as an artist? She wants to take things even further, and venture into new territory involving an addictive narcotic that has a complicated history in the Hmong community.
“I’ve always wanted to make [something] life-size,” she says. “Something more 3D–larger scale. I really want an institution to pay me to cultivate opium.”
Pao Houa Her’s exhibit, Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers of the Sky, will be on display at the Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, Minnesota, from July 28, 2022 to January 22, 2023. For more information, visit www.walkerart.org.