The Twin Cities photographer sees the Hmong diaspora in Western landscapes

The Twin Cities photographer sees the Hmong diaspora in Western landscapes | Pro Club Bd

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

The Walker exhibit, entitled “Paj qaum ntuj” or “Flowers of Heaven,” features Her’s black-and-white landscape photographs of the Mount Shasta region of Northern California. It’s a departure from Her’s usual portrait work – and a compelling story about a community’s relationship to its history and country. The exhibition opened on Thursday.

Visitors begin by seeing a hanging banner of one of the landscapes, with illustrated pink and green opium flowers providing 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 work is in black and white. The only light comes from the boxes in which they are mounted.

She started this project after COVID-19 forced a change of direction. In the spring of 2020, when it became impossible to meet people in person, she paused her portrait work. She took her camera on a road trip to visit family in California, where she was fascinated by the history of Mount Shasta.

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

She was struck by the parallels between this community and the Hmong experience in Laos. In the 1940s to 1960s they were major opium farmers in the mountains of Laos. She says the people she spoke to at Mount Shasta see her marijuana cultivation as a continuation of that tradition.

“The story has this kind of really funny way of recycling,” says Her. “The Hmong people are given this land that’s considered uninhabitable and they have to make do with what they have.”

“Hmong people are then able to flip it.”

Her work often focuses on issues such as diaspora and migration, and Flowers of the Sky is no different. The video played on the back wall provides this context for the exhibition. It features a man from Laos singing about coming to the United States and a woman from Minnesota singing about returning to Laos. The title of the piece translated into English means “I miss you, please come back”.

Photographing landscapes of the American West made her think of the early generation of photographers who made their names there. She studied the works of Ansel Adams, Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and others and contemplated the ways in which they made the landscape appear enchanting.

“It was really important for me to think about … how they photographed the west to make it much grander, to think about the greatness of the west and to make people who lived in the east want to come,” she said.

She set about capturing a kind of “grandness” in her landscape photos of Mount Shasta, with the Hmong community at the center. “Flowers of Heaven” is translation for a Hmong phrase meaning marijuana.

“I’m definitely not trying to lure anyone into coming west, but I think it really helps to think about it in the context of work,” she says.

The exhibition plays with this idea of ​​attracting an audience with its lightbox displays. She wanted to mimic the advertisements in a mall or at an airport.

She wants the exhibition to be as accessible as possible for Hmong speakers. Captions are in both Hmong and English, and the exhibit’s Hmong title is prominently displayed on the outside wall.

The song playing in the video is in Hmong and has no on-screen subtitles – non-Hmong speakers can instead scan a QR code to see a transcript of the song’s lyrics. She hopes the song will welcome 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 Associate Curator Matthew Villar Miranda in front of Her’s Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky exhibition.

Ben Hovland | MPR News

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

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

The exhibition will be on view until January 2023.

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