2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Pao Houa Her

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Pao Houa Her

Published May 8th, 2024 by Russ White

Viewing her Hmong community through the lens of photography, video, and installation, Her illuminates the many stories and sentiments that make up a family

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the sixth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


If you are a child of the ‘80s, you may have had a similar experience to Pao Houa Her: her father coming home one day with a big, shoulder-mounted video camera and proceeding to endlessly videotape everything the artist and her six younger siblings would do. “My father is the quintessential doting father," she says with a smile. "He would record everything and take pictures of everything.” I was lucky enough to have the same, though I am loath now to look back at the tapes and what mortifying embarrassments they surely hold.

But that’s half the charm of family photos, right? The clothes, the haircuts (my goodness), the distant memories of childish comforts and concerns. The other half, especially when seen from enough distance, is the miracle of a moment remembered — a fraction of a second that could have been lost to time but that is instead kept present all these years later.

Her’s work as a photographer manages to invert this nostalgic magic, documenting the present moment — people and places here and now — in a way that alludes to and encapsulates all those moments prior. In one photo, a man stands in a dingy room holding a vase of tall, beautiful flowers in front of his face. An old burn mark stains the wall behind him; a yellow mop bucket peeks out from under a dirty, cluttered table. Uneaten tacos still in their tin foil sit on a white freezer chest in front of a folded orthopedic chair. There is a story to be told here about this man’s life and this room’s history, but Her has instead interrupted it with this bouquet, interested not in photojournalistic explication but in a more compassionate, abstracted artistry.


Untitled (Brian with fake flowers standing near the burn), 2019. Courtesy of Aperture.


The artist has devoted her practice to documenting her family and her Hmong community through portraits, landscapes, still life, and video, creating images and installations that reckon with the daily life of a diasporic culture. Her interest in photography began early, and she lights up when I ask how family photos impacted her as a child.

“Oh my god, so much,” she says. “Family snapshots and photography played a huge role in my life growing up.” When her father brought home new cameras, she says, it was her job to figure out how they worked so she could teach him. In sixth grade, a lucky connection with a good teacher sealed the deal.

“I had this amazing ESL teacher, who was really interested in introducing new forms of making to a bunch of Hmong students who didn't really know how to speak English,” she says. “He gave us film and cameras, sent us out, and then taught us how to develop film and make prints using silver gelatin.”

In high school, she says, “I was a horrible student,” except when it came to the darkroom. “My dad oftentimes would write checks for school lunches, and I would just hand them over to my photography teachers so that I could buy paper and film to continue shooting.”

Her subjects were family and friends, and she has carried that interest in the everyday forward into her current work. Her portrait practice ranges from seemingly candid snapshots to formal studio portraiture, capturing beauty queens in their makeup mirrors, decorated veterans in their military uniforms, and a young boy laying shirtless in a yard while ziploc bags dry on a clothesline above. In Her’s practice, observation is a way to show respect. Many of her photos feature Hmong elders, at times sitting in full ceremonial regalia next to potted plants or striking a pose in dapper suits as lush foliage dangles down from the ceiling.


Top: untitled (Hmong elder in Hmong clothes), 2018. From The Imaginative Landscape series. Archival pigment print, 20 x 16". Courtesy of Bockley Gallery. Bottom: Three bachelors at the Elder Center, 2016. Digital archival print. 20 x 25". Courtesy of Midway Contemporary Art.


Plants actually show up quite often in Her’s work. Her black and white still life photos of dried poppies and silk flower bouquets are exquisite, and in many of her portraits, the sitters are flanked — sometimes almost engulfed — by a variety of plant life. Using these plants, often with a printed landscape backdrop, references the tradition of French studio portraiture brought to Laos during its 19th and 20th century colonization (among many other places, she tells me, like Afghanistan and South Africa), and this style of portrait has since become a mainstay in Hmong culture, in use today even as some women’s dating site profile pictures. These floral arrangements are also deeply personal for Her, tied to the decor in her household as a child. “My mom has always had fake flowers,” she says, “whether they be taped on to her door or whether they be these floral arrangements that she puts in the bathroom and the kitchen and the living room.” Real flowers, of course, can be expensive and short-lived; these fake flowers — beautiful in their own right — stand as undying signifiers of class, taste, and color, as well as being stubborn rejections of memento mori.


untitled (flower bouquet with backdrop), 2019. From The Imaginative Landscape series. Archival pigment print, 20 x 25". Courtesy of Bockley Gallery.


If you ever visit the Hmongtown Marketplace in Saint Paul, be sure to grab a bite and take it to the food court seating area. There, waiting for you, is a surprise: an exhibition of Her’s photos, mounted in large lightboxes hanging above the tables. It’s a show sponsored by Midway Contemporary Art, and each of the works on display are different observations of plants — a display of fake flowers at a restaurant, a black and white landscape in California’s weed country, blooming red poppies in front of a printed backdrop, and a photo of jungle brush — all of which offer Hmong viewers the opportunity to see themselves in the pictures.

As May Lee-Yang writes in the accompanying wall text, “Growing up, nearly every Hmong household I knew had a backyard plot of dirt-turned-garden, a collection of potted plants sitting underneath the window that had the most sunlight, or vases of fluorescent-colored flowers — the tackier, the better… To have flowers that exist as nothing but decoration: that is a luxury. That is an American dream. But, of course, we’re Hmong so we can’t escape the fear — let’s call it trauma — of losing.”


Top: Untitled Midway Off-Site installation at Hmongtown Marketplace. Image courtesy of Midway Contemporary Art. Bottom: Photos on the wall in the artist's studio. Photo by Russ White.


During our studio visit, Her has tacked up on the wall five large pictures from the Laotian jungle, crisply detailed windows into an all-green wilderness. They are similar to her studio portraiture: steady, shot from a tripod, with an intense depth of focus. Study the details of each leaf, each bush, each section of underbrush all you want, but these pictures, like the forest itself, give you no answers. Her was born in Laos in 1982, and she made these photos during a trip back with her parents nearly forty years later. They were visiting the site of their village, which the family was forced to flee in 1983, one-year-old Pao in tow, under threat of death from the Viet Cong because of her father’s military service during the war. These are not just random, pretty pictures of a faraway forest; these are the exact spots along the jungle path to Thailand where the young family hid for their lives. This is year one of Her's autobiography.

The fact that her father could remember these spots with such clarity is itself astounding. But, Her explains, “My dad says you never forget where you were the most hungry, where you fear death, and where you felt loved. You never forget.” The infant artist barely survived the journey; her parents fed her opium to keep her from crying in the jungle and giving away their location. Suddenly all these pretty pictures of flowers and plants take on a new dimension, indeed quite the opposite of memento mori: they are complicated narratives of survival itself.


Top: Jungle fire, 2017. 3D lenticular print. 40 x 32". Bottom: Flower penis, 2017. 3D lenticular print. 20 x 25". Images courtesy of Midway Contemporary Art.


Throughout her work, plants continue to offer some sense of concealment, like a veil or a door hiding pleasure or truth or simply other people’s lives. “I always tell people that I'm in a very interesting position because I'm not Hmong enough to be in the thick of the Hmong community. I have this sort of insider/outsider’s perspective, and I think, for me, the plants act as sort of this shield for me, or sort of a curtain for me to pull things back.”

It could also be Her’s way to grasp a sense of privacy after growing up in a large family that also opened its home to extended relatives. “There were so many people in our house,” she says. “We always lived with other people, and my dad was always so welcoming of other people. And I never understood that. I absolutely hated that when I was a child.”

Time and again in our conversation, her family comes up — her father’s cameras, her mother’s flowers, her great aunt’s stories. This is an artist who has known who she is from a very young age — shooting pictures of her family then as now — but who is endlessly in search of that answer at the same time.


Image courtesy of the artist's Instagram.


Perhaps photography is uniquely well suited for this pursuit of the unknowable: a camera’s truth is limited entirely to its viewfinder, like a story to its teller. A book of Her’s work has recently been published titled My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions, and it takes its title from another piece of family history about war and heartbreak. When Her’s father was only four, his father joined General Vang Pao’s army; he loved Her’s grandmother and their four sons very much, but duty compelled him to fight. Unfortunately, he stepped on a landmine, and, as Her relays the story her great aunt told, “When he died, a tiger showed up in my grandmother's village and stayed with my grandmother. At night, the tiger would go into the village, would kill the livestock, and would drag it back to my grandmother's front door. And people in the village knew that this was my grandfather, because he had told my grandmother that he didn't want to go, and that he was only going to fulfill a duty, and that he and my grandmother really loved each other.

“It wasn't until my grandmother was going to be married off that my grandmother asked this tiger to leave. And my grandfather left and never came back.”

It’s a remarkable piece of family lore, all the more compelling because her grandmother and her father would not acknowledge it, possibly because of the deep pain tied to those memories. When her grandmother was remarried to a cruel cousin of her late husband, Her’s father’s childhood grew very difficult, and he would join the military at the age of twelve to escape, setting this family on a trajectory that would lead them, with so many others, halfway around the world to Minnesota.


Top: Kuv nco koj, rov qab los (I miss you, come back), 2022. Two-channel video and audio installation (color, sound). Installation view at Walker Art Center. T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2023, image courtesy of walkerart.org. Bottom: photo of singer from Kuv nco koj, rov qab los (I miss you, come back) in the artist's studio. Photo by Russ White.


In Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, her 2022 solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Her explored the distance between this place and that using a two-channel video projection. On the left side, a beautiful elderly woman stands in a field on a farm; on the right, a middle-aged man stands in front of a thick, green jungle. They each take turns singing and then standing in silence, stone-faced and swaying in place, as though listening for the other’s song. Here the landscape and the portrait become one, and as a viewer, you’re left to translate not just the words but the locations on your own. Whether you recognize one as Minnesota and the other as Laos, you surely will recognize the distance at play here, and the melancholy. Her shows us the respect of not spelling everything out for us. “I think as an artist of color, and as an artist whose first language is not English,” she says, “having the audience put in work is really important for me.”

There is an element of elegy across many of her photos — a small sadness in the face of a woman in full ceremonial garb sitting in front of a printed backdrop of her ancestral home, the ennui of a child laying bored on a couch, the touching disconnect between a rapturous young woman and the cheap plastic chair in which she sits. A lot of it may be simply a deadpan approach — there is loads of good humor and heart here, too — but the sophistication with which she captures her family and her community comes from a lifetime of experiencing love and loss within it, including the sudden passing of her beloved husband Ya Yang in March of 2021. The couple had been together since junior high, and three years into the grieving process, she is now developing new work that looks directly at this great loss.

She gives me a preview of another video she has produced, for an upcoming solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, opening May 16. “All the bodies of work that I've made, I think, have always been very diaristic,” she says, but this one in particular, understandably, feels almost too personal. Also, for a craftsperson who has shown in museums and marketplaces, creating work in the form of photos and videos and sculptures and books, the question arises: “what are the different ways in which this can exist in the world?”

Exactly what form it will take remains to be seen, but the video portion features another pair of singers, this time filmed entirely in Laos. Through a contact, Her commissioned a performance from two Hmong performers. Standing in an open field surrounded by butterflies, the singers crafted a song of mourning to each other on the spot, inspired by Ya’s passing. In a strange moment of alignment and serendipity, it was only afterward that Her learned the name of the place they had been: locals call it the Valley of the Widows.

Here again, as at the Walker, the landscape, the singers, and the song weave together sentiments simultaneously personal and communal, both foreign and familiar, at least to my American ears. Her’s work is like looking through another family’s photo album and finding, in their self-understanding, a bit of your own. There is sweetness and sadness, cruel history and cute children, deep boredom and wild magic. Ancestors, at the edge of the village, offering flowers in all forms. ◼︎ 


Image courtesy of Inver Hills News.


Video profile of Pao Houa Her, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:


To see more of Pao Houa Her's work, visit Bockley Gallery or follow her on Instagram @paohouaher.

Banner image: Untitled, (Jungle in Laos), 2019. Light Box, 52 x 65". Image courtesy of Midway Contemporary Art.

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