“Photography doesn’t render the truth, it renders fiction,” says Pao Houa Her. If fiction is the world that we feel and desire but do not yet see around us—a place that we inhabit to imagine otherwise and, in doing so, to heal—then fiction is where our desire for recognition, belonging, and empowerment manifests. Her’s photographs document the powerful stories of the Hmong diaspora around her—and their displacement, stoic resilience, and deep longings. Her practice offers lessons in perception, on the flawed and re-appropriated tropes of Western photographic framing, and on how simply looking is no longer enough.
Her’s enamoured approach to artificiality cannot be ignored. Although all portraiture is constructed reality—a projected fiction, even status symbol, of the way one wishes to be seen and remembered—Her dissects its composition and denies background neutrality, demanding that it be seen. In My Grandmother’s Favourite Grandchild (2017), painterly hills and airbrushed waterfalls of Laotian hillsides effectively swallow the sitter in Hmong traditional dress (whose body also hosts faces of other family members in the series, taking turns). For After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw (2017–present), Her photographs Hmong elders amidst lusciously enveloping fake flowers, that reveal subtle seams as they hang solemnly in black and white. In Hmong Veteran, Attention (2013–14), senior Hmong soldiers are decorated majestically with the medals they deserve, despite still being unrecognized by America for serving in the Secret War, organized by the CIA against communist Laos and Vietnam. Her draws from these tropes in vernacular Hmong portraiture, itself a mutation of colonial French influence, emphasizing these backdrops of Laotian jungle scenes and poppy fields, signifiers translated from formal portraits to self-representations on Hmong dating sites.
Yet these backdrops represent an absent ground. Included in The American War—a Seattle exhibition of Her and Sadie Wechsler’s lens-based work exploring the legacy and residue of these wars—Fake Bamboo Still Life (2014) stands proudly, unaffected by invasive studio lights, against a sharply shadowed yet depthless blood red backdrop. Her’s affection for the artificial is rooted in memories of the fake flowers that her mother collected to adorn their home—often opium blooms—which stand in for a now inaccessible homeland. As Hmong-American playwright May Lee-Yang describes in the exhibition’s poem, “[K]now that plastic flowers can stand in for a living thing… But no matter where we stand, the backdrop is a chimera.”1
Photography is already a stand-in for reality; here, we become doubly aware of our role as distanced viewers through Her’s critical disruptions. Artificiality is also a substitute for the Hmong idea of tebchaw—an impossible homeland due to the continued displacement of imperialism and war. The Hmong, an indigenous hilltribe of skilled farmers and warriors, lived autonomously in China’s remote regions since 4000 BCE. In the 1800s, when China used military force to try to eliminate ethnic minorities, the Hmong and others sought refuge in the Southeast Asian mountains. In Laos—a French colony from 1893 to 1954—the Hmong endured further discrimination yet survived by growing opium on arid and inhospitable land. From 1961 to 1973, over 40 000 Hmong men fought as guerrilla soldiers in the U.S. Secret War, which killed a quarter of the Hmong population. In 1975, when the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War, 120 000 Hmong people suddenly became refugees, fleeing a communist Laos where they face persecution and death to this day. Through UN refugee programs many re-settled in Minnesota, forming the largest urban population of Hmong in the United States today.
In Vancouver, After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw is dispersed across transit shelters in the city, as part of Her’s solo exhibition Emplotment at Or Gallery organized by guest curator Godfre Leung. For a city with a large Asian diasporic population, the contrasts between locations are striking: in east Vancouver, where many Asian immigrants and businesses reside, the portraits feel at home—a comforting reminder of the elders that shop and wait at these very stops. The surrounding area literally refracts, ghostlike, onto the portraits’ surfaces, layering them in relation with passersby, abandoned strip malls, and construction signs, complicating views. On the west side, the sitters feel much more austere; lush gardens of nearby mansions unexpectedly accentuate the portraits’ faux jungle scenes, and the rarity of the sitter’s visibility here becomes all the more dignified and meaningful.
Lush gardens of nearby mansions unexpectedly accentuate the portraits’ faux jungle scenes, and the rarity of the sitter’s visibility here becomes all the more dignified and meaningful.
After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw echoes the misfortunes of Hmong elders, who were swindled in 2016 by Seng Xiong, a conman who claimed to be working with the American government and the United Nations to secure land in Southeast Asia for the stateless Hmong: a future nation called Hmong Tebchaw. Xiong’s scheme, conducted mostly among Hmong seniors in St. Paul, Minnesota, defrauded his victims of more than $1.7 million. Her’s portraits of these Hmong elders were taken at St. Paul’s Hmong Elders Center—one of the community sites Xiong targeted—and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s tropical areas, which remind these Hmong elders of home. Even though Xiong was sentenced to seven years in prison, dozens of his victims vowed to reinvest their restitution payments so he could continue his “work.” As curator Leung notes, “The photographs depict the ungraspable nature of Hmong Tebchaw… dispersed in bus shelters around Vancouver, [they] unseat the idea of a physical territory while paying respect to the desire for it.”2 Her’s portraits swindle our gaze, just as these elders have had the wool pulled over their eyes—a fraud which some take comfort from, and still believe.
In Emplotment, the photographic experience becomes immersive, embodied, and multisensory. The heart of the Tebchaw portraits—a single junglescape that Her shot in 2019 during a residency in Laos—flanks the Or Gallery’s street-front window, in strange similitude to the lush green fields advertised in the adjacent tea store. A second lone image in the gallery’s bookstore is where Her’s perspicuity shines: colourful opium flowers dotted within the jungle mass, velvety textured on rag paper. The exhibition re-asserts dimensionality; disorientation of place intensifies as we move inward, image by image. Green Rush—the main installation—is a field of fake poppies, hemmed into soil by a plastic white picket fence. Their realism is not meant to stand; nor is the artificial scent that assaults our senses. Her describes this as “an olfactory idea of American Pie”3: tawdrily manufactured, saccharine-sweet scents of an inviting home. It’s overpowering; quickly intolerable. Beside the installation is the inspiration for the work’s title: a New York Times article in 2015 in which the term ‘green rush’ was coined to describe a wave of decampments in Northern California where Hmong migrant workers used their traditional agricultural knowledge to grow recently-legalized marijuana on near-worthless land. Hung low around the installation are black-and-white photographs of Laotian jungle scenes, which we must crouch to view closely.
A line of images from other bodies of work splices narratives, leading us to the final large photograph, untitled (opium in Rush City, Minnesota) (2019), the same image in the gallery’s bookstore, repeated in monochrome. Her deftly collapses foreground and background across and within these works, in gestures that Leung aptly describes as kaleidoscopic: contradictory and non-linear, versions of an agrarian prosperity via analgesics remounted in the present. What a plant symbolizes for a people: a beacon of hope, a miracle —and for others, as a way to numb the pain and forget. This resilience is what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing vividly describes of what survives in capitalism’s ruins—how Hmong and other South Asian labourers harvest matsutake mushrooms in Oregon forests, unlikely hosts and foragers entangled through twisted fates: “Negotiating multiple forms of prejudice and dispossession, contaminated diversity proliferates.”4 Through ancestral practices, across generations and geographies, offering comfort for so many diasporas, is this very renegade spirit found in Emplotment: of those who survive, foraging courageously in unknown lands for that feeling—and what we might learn from their wisdom.
(1) May Lee-Yang, “How to Return Home,” a poem in the exhibition, The American War: Pao Houa Her and Sadie Weschler, Office of Arts & Culture, Seattle, February 6–March 21, 2020. For more information, see here.
(3) Author’s conversation with Pao Houa Her, May 25, 2020.
(4) Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 33 (Emphasis added).