A lot has happened to photographer Pao Houa Her in the last year. In April, she became the first Hmong American to be selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York. In July, she opened a solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center, and in November, she began a solo exhibition at Paris Photo. But Her believes that while she’s definitely someone in the art world, she’s not a celebrity in her own community.
“Sometimes I really relish the fact that I’m nobody in the business. [Hmong] community,” said Her, 40. “I don’t have an audience – or the perception is I don’t have an audience, so it doesn’t really matter what I have to say . There’s something really powerful about it – not being a public figure and not having to answer to anyone has really helped the way I work.”
Before her big year, she suffered a devastating loss. In March 2021, her husband of nearly 20 years, Ya Yang, died of a sudden brain hemorrhage. They had known each other since middle school and she said he was her biggest supporter. He was the person who believed in herself even when she didn’t believe in herself.
Now, more than a year after Yang’s death and on the heels of an international artistic career, Her is Star Tribune Artist of the Year.
His Walker Art Center exhibition “Pao Houa Her: Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers of the Sky,” named after the Hmong word for marijuana, explores the landscape of northern California, where many Hmong farmers moved to trying to grow cannabis, despite anti-Asian racism in the region. People-free footage, satellite photos, and a dual-screen installation inspired by “kwv-txhiaj,” or Hmong sung poetry, give visitors a glimpse into this iteration of the Hmong diaspora.
It is typical for Her. In the “My Mother’s Flowers” project, she explored floral iconography in traditional Hmong aesthetics, and how some Hmong men seek out “pure” Lao women who “have not been westernized” on the sites of met. In “Hmong Veterans – Attention”, she took portraits of Hmong veterans whose service in the Vietnam War was never recognized by the United States. In “My Grandfather Turned into a Tiger”, she returned to Laos, guided by a story her grandmother told her of how her grandfather, who was killed in the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam), transformed into a tiger. and haunts the village.
She, the eldest of seven children, was born in Laos and fled with her family at the age of 4 to the United States. She grew up on the East Side of St. Paul, graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and was the first Hmong American to receive an MFA in photography from Yale University. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Photography and Motion Pictures at the University of Minnesota and has taught at many area colleges.
Ever-evolving Hmong aesthetic
Her work centers on the Hmong American experience, and her storytelling blends fiction and reality to create new diasporic mythologies. She never idealizes, but criticizes and asks questions about Hmong culture that others would choose to ignore.
Kathy Mouacheupao, executive director of the Metro Regional Arts Council and former executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, believes she has been able to go her own way and have watched how she plays with the ever-changing Hmong aesthetic.
Some of that aesthetic, Mouacheupao said, shows up in the pictures Hmong parents had their children take when they arrived in the United States.
“There was a certain kind of posing, flowers, clothes, all that, and Pao Houa took that back and made it a bit contemporary, [made] his own version of that,” Mouacheupao said. “It was very familiar, and it’s an aesthetic that, for young Hmong Americans, you kind of try to get away from, but Pao Houa brought it back from a way that I really enjoyed.
“It has an aesthetic, but it’s also very intellectual and deeply rooted in the culture. If you’re part of the community, it’s familiar…and I think there’s something really important about the familiarity.”
Photographer Wing Young Huie, winner of the 2018 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, was one of the first people to help her achieve what she wanted to do. He is known for his projects “Chinese-ness,” a nuanced investigation of identity that is part memoir and part documentary, “Frogtown,” a documentation of the ethnically diverse neighborhood of St. Paul, and his project focused on the Lake Street USA community
In her Frogtown project, “seeing older immigrants on the street with their children made me think of how my mother would have appeared walking the streets of Duluth, looking like a part of her had never left. China, as its children acculturated, Americanized,” Huie said.
“Seeing Wing’s work, what it did to me was that it helped me connect these two different things – that I could tell a story using photographs and that the story didn’t don’t have to be factual,” Her said. “There can be ambiguity in the photographs, and it can be documentation of a group of people who can ask questions.”
When Huie saw Her’s work, he said, “I was struck aesthetically and emotionally. I recognize a lot in these photos — that they could be my relatives, and then a kind of uneasiness kicked in.”
When Huie was asked to curate an exhibition at the Gordon Parks Gallery at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, he thought of her, who at the time was in Yale’s graduate photography program. In October 2012, shortly after graduating, Huie held Her’s first solo exhibition, “Somebody”.
In a twist of fate, perhaps in one of the many ways Her and Huie’s lives intersected before they officially worked together, Huie snapped a photo of Her’s uncle at the spot. exact from Frogtown where, several years later, he committed suicide. In fact, Huie photographed many of Her’s family members.
In her pictures, she saw her people photographed for the first time.
Today, she lives in Blaine, a quiet suburb, in the house she bought with Yang. These days, the house is often filled with the sounds of her nephew Vince, 6, niece Kaylee, 7, and siblings Mai Youa and Julie.
When she was in college, she often returned to Minnesota, sometimes every other weekend, thanks in part to Yang’s support, to take photos of her community. She was in an elite Ivy League school on the East Coast, but her heart and her people were in Minnesota.
“I’m just a photographer with a masculine-sounding name who sometimes shoots and does exhibits in museums,” she said. “But that’s okay. I like this idea of operating in this way.”
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