artist / participant
Pao Houa Her: Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers of the Sky
July 28, 2022–January 22, 2023
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. Working in 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 artifice 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 works lend a poetic dignity and bodily reality to the on-the-ground experience and offer 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 the stark landscape around Mount Shasta. 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 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.
Pao Houa Her: Paj qaum ntuj/Flowers of the Sky is made possible with support from the Edward R. Bazinet Foundation.
Sponsored by Northern Trust.