Twin Cities' photographer sees the Hmong diaspora in Western landscapes

An artist poses in front of their artwork in a gallery
Photographer Pao Houa Her poses for a photo at the entrance to her “Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky” exhibit at the Walker Art Center on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Twin Cities-based photographer Pao Houa Her turned a COVID-time road trip into a contemplation of Hmong history. The result is Her’s first solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center.

Called “Paj qaum ntuj,” or “Flowers of the Sky,” the Walker exhibit showcases Her’s black-and-white landscape photos of the Mount Shasta region in northern California. It’s a departure from Her’s usual work with portraits — and a captivating story of a community’s relationship to its history and land. The exhibit opened Thursday.

At the start, visitors see a hanging banner of one of the landscapes, with illustrated pink-and-green opium flowers offering a pop of color in the foreground. A video on the back wall fills the hall with the music of a kwv-txhiaj, a Hmong song-poem.

The rest of the works are in black-and-white. The only light comes from the boxes in which they’re mounted.

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Her started this project after COVID-19 forced a change in direction. In the spring of 2020 as meeting people in-person became impossible, she put her portrait work on pause. She brought her camera along on a road trip to visit family in California, where she was intrigued by the story of Mount Shasta.

The region is home to a large Hmong population. Many of them cultivate marijuana. In recent years, they’ve faced droughts, fires, and legal challenges to their marijuana farms.

Her was struck by the parallels between this community and the experiences of the Hmong people in Laos. In the 1940s through the 60s, they were major opium growers in the mountains of Laos. Her says the people she spoke with in Mount Shasta see their marijuana cultivation as a continuation of that tradition.

“History has this sort of really funny way of recycling,” Her says. “Hmong people are given these lands that are deemed uninhabitable, and they’re having to make do with what they have.”

“Hmong people are then able to turn it around.”

Her’s work often focuses on themes of diaspora and migration, and “Flowers of the Sky” is no different. The video playing on the back wall offers this context to the exhibit. It features a man from Laos singing about wanting to come to the United States, and a woman from Minnesota singing about wanting to go back to Laos. The piece’s title translates in English to “I miss you, please come back.”

Photographing landscapes of the American West made Her think of the early generation of photographers who made their reputations there. She studied the works of Ansel Adams, Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and others, looking at the ways they made the landscape look enchanting.

“For me it was really important to think about… the ways in which they photographed the West to make it a lot more grand, think about the grander-ness of the west, and to entice people that were living in the east to come,” Her said.

She set out to capture a kind of “grander-ness” in her landscape photos of Mount Shasta, with the Hmong community at the center. “Flowers of the Sky” is the translation for a Hmong phrase meaning marijuana.

“I’m definitely not trying to entice anybody to come to the West, but I think thinking about that in the scope of the work really helps,” she says.

The exhibit plays with that idea of enticing an audience with her lightbox displays. Her wanted to mimic the advertising at a mall or an airport.

Her wants the exhibit to be as accessible for Hmong speakers as possible. The photo captions are in both Hmong and English, and the Hmong title of the exhibit is prominent on the outside wall.

The song playing in the video is in Hmong, and it doesn’t have captions on the screen — non-Hmong speakers can scan a QR code instead to see a transcript of the lyrics. She hopes the song welcomes Hmong visitors who don’t always feel welcome in museums.

Three people stand together in front of an art gallery wall
Photographer Pao Houa Her poses for a photo with associate curator Victoria Sung and curatorial fellow Matthew Villar Miranda outside Her’s “Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky” exhibit.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“There’s something really beautiful about hearing your own voice in an institution that has never been accessible to you,” Her says.

“It’s just such an honor to have an artist like Pao, who not only represents and identifies with these communities, but represents it in such a poetic and beautiful way,” curator Matthew Villar Miranda says.

The exhibit will be up through January 2023.