Walker Art Center Presents Pao Houa Her: Paj Quam Ntuj / Flowers Of The Sky, Featuring A New Body Of Work
By Victoria Sung, Associate Curator, Visual Arts; and Matthew Villar Miranda, Curatorial Fellow, Visual Arts
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 debuts a new body of work that centers the experiences of Hmong Americans in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California, a much-contested landscape that has in recent years become the site of considerable subsistence agriculture and cannabis cultivation. Hmong farmers have used their ancestral knowledge of highland agriculture to cultivate the mountain’s volcanic terrain. The exhibition title Paj qaum ntuj 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 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 lightboxes 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. 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 the area’s farmland, prompting questions about ways that governments manage and control populations. A two-channel moving image and sound installation inspired by kwv-txhiaj, or Hmong song poetry, plays in the gallery. 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.
Opening-Day Talk and Community Reception: Pao Houa Her
Thursday, July 28, 6:00 pm
In celebration of the opening of Pao Houa Her: Paj quam ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, join us for a conversation with the artist and exhibition curators Victoria Sung and Matthew Villar Miranda. The exhibition centers the experiences of Hmong Americans in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California, a much-contested landscape that has in recent years become the site of considerable subsistence agriculture and cannabis cultivation. Through her large-format photographs of the surrounding landscape, Her’s work lends a poetic dignity and bodily reality to the community’s on-the-ground experience.
A reception will immediately follow the artist talk. It will feature a bar and small bites by James Beard nominated chef Yia Vang and his team.
Free tickets to the talk will be available at the Main Lobby desk beginning at 5 pm. Please check back closer to the date for program details and current COVID-19 guidelines. The talk will have ASL interpretation.
Gallery admission is free on Thursday nights, 5–9 pm. Admission tickets must be reserved separately, quantities are limited.