Pao Houa Her (US, b. Laos, 1982) is known for her powerful photographs focusing on the Hmong diaspora in the United States and Laos, exploring themes of migration, displacement, and social and ecological resilience. Using a formally rigorous approach and working with both color and black-and-white photography, the Twin Cities–based artist draws from traditions of portraiture, landscape, and still life, critically and playfully engaging the boundaries between fiction and reality.
For her solo exhibition at the Walker, Her will debut a new body of work made during the past two years in Northern California. The artist was inspired by a newspaper article on the “Green Rush,” a term used to describe the recent migration of farmers to California that recalls the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. In the remote Mount Shasta area, Hmong farmers have used their ancestral knowledge of highland agriculture to cultivate the mountain’s volcanic terrain. Her’s photographs focus on the much-contested landscape that has become the site of considerable subsistence agriculture and cannabis cultivation following the state’s legalization of marijuana. The exhibition title Paj qaum ntuj (pronounced “paah kohm duu”) translates to “Flowers of the Sky,” a Hmong phrase alluding to growing marijuana. The poetic and vivid quality of this saying demonstrates the artist’s interest in making visible how Hmong language and land often intertwine.
Despite their successes in growing crops and forming vibrant communities in this harsh landscape, the artist points out that Hmong Americans in the Mount Shasta region have also experienced anti-Asian retaliation, criminal profiling, violent policing, and limited governmental protection during natural disasters. Counter to the media’s images of strife, Her’s work lends a poetic dignity and bodily reality to the on-the-ground experience and offers an intimate portrait of the community.
Conceived as a multipart installation, the exhibition includes a series of new large-scale light boxes featuring images of Mount Shasta’s stark landscape. The display of these works mimics strategies of advertising and communicates the luminous allure of a promised land. While people are not visible in any of these photographs, their tools of labor suggest their implicit presence. By revealing traces of their activity in this often-overlooked place, the artist honors ways that Hmong Americans have persisted through injustices and overcome challenges. The Hmong word tebchaw—literally “land-place”—describes country, nation-state, or region. Figuratively, it relates to a desire for one’s homeland and the geographies that conjure hope in the memories of many Hmong people.
The exhibition also features a selection of satellite photographs showing views of this area’s farmland. Her’s use of these images prompts critical questions about ways that governments manage and control populations. The exhibition culminates in a dual-screen moving image and sound installation inspired by kwv-txhiaj, or Hmong song poetry. This complex musical and literary tradition in Hmong culture is often performed in pairs: parent to child, friend to friend, or lover to lover. The art form expresses a wide range of subjects, including nature, kinship, emotion, and courtship, and serves a vital role in passing knowledge through generations.
Victoria Sung, associate curator, Visual Arts; and Matthew Villar Miranda, curatorial fellow, Visual Arts