In 2020, when photographer Pao Houa Her’s gallerist at the Bockley Gallery in Kenwood gave her a heads-up that the Whitney Museum in New York was interested in a studio visit, she was lying in bed with her husband, Ya Vang, at their home in Blaine. A couple months later, when she received word that she would be included in the career-making every-other-year “you’ve-got-the-goods-kid” Whitney Biennial, they were sworn to secrecy, so they had a private champagne toast to each other in their kitchen. Vang had been in Her’s corner since they fell in love in junior high.
“He was always a nerd,” she says when we meet at the Bockley to go over the six bodies of work she will be presenting at the Biennial. “And he thought I was cool—I definitely got confidence from him that I was going to be able to become an artist.”
It’s been a year now since Vang passed from a brain hemorrhage, and the inclusion of Her in the Biennial and this revelation of precisely what she meant to him, and what that meant to her, compounded the devastation of his loss. Watching Her pull off the full Brando this afternoon at the Bockley—black leather jacket, blue jeans frayed at the hem, white patent leather Docs—while she walks through years of her own brilliant work—a solemn portrait of a septuagenarian veteran of the secret American war in Laos wearing store-bought medals on his full military dress; a 3D lenticular image of a field of silk poppy flowers obscuring a gigantic erect penis—it’s easy to see what Vang saw in her. She’s wicked cool.
She is proudly Hmong, the eldest of seven children born to a factory worker dad and a senior day care provider mom. Her ella dropped out of Humboldt High before getting her GED and eventually a BFA from MCAD and then an MFA from Yale. Now she’s a professor of photography at Macalester, but she’s a photographer above all, with a body of work that leans into the extremely conceptual—it’s generally about photography but specifically about how she can use photography to make sense of her Hmong cultural identity.
When I ask her if, at the age of 39, she feels she’s made it, she demurs—part of being cool is staying humble, after all. “I’m just some Hmong woman in Minnesota,” she says, “who is really invested in photography and wants to make photographs all the time and is constantly thinking about the ways in which photography can speak about a community, and to a community , without having to write a research paper.”
“I’m just some Hmong woman in Minnesota who wants to make photographs all the time.”
— Pao Houa Her
So, are your parents finally proud of you?
I think my siblings feel excited for me because I’m excited. But I think, in the scope of, like, what it means to be in the Biennial, my parents are just super nonchalant. Because they don’t know what an artist is.
Wing Young Huie wrote a beautiful artist statement for your show at Midway Contemporary Art. He points out that oftentimes it takes an immigrant group a couple generations “to produce visual artists capable of describing their complex acculturation issues from an inside/outside point of view. ”
I was a first-generation Hmong American who had crazy identity issues. I felt like my parents didn’t know who I was.
So, you grew up a troubled youth at Humboldt High.
I didn’t like school. I got into fights. I was suspended. I was not the best student.
Sounds like you are angry about something.
A lot of it probably had to do with, again, weird identity issues—not knowing who I was. Maybe, like, absent parents because they worked so much. Dad didn’t speak English, so it was hard for him to get a permanent position.
Your parents must have been very concerned about you.
I think for them, getting a GED was really important. “Oh, you’ve been kicked out of school and now you’re making all this effort to go and get a GED? Great. We’ll support you.” Then I went to Inver Hills Community College for two years and decided that I was going to go into law. I was on track to being this sort of model minority.
But what about photography? You never got high in a darkroom in high school?
I never got high in the darkroom, but I loved the darkroom! I was introduced to the darkroom really early on, in sixth grade. In high school, I returned to the darkroom. I would cut all my classes except the darkroom class. Every time my dad paid for school lunches, I would take that check and I would give it to my schoolteacher so my schoolteacher could continue to give me chemicals for black-and-white film and paper.
You were a photography kid. What was your first camera?
Oh, my dad had this Canon film camera that he had bought for, I think, like a thousand dollars at that time. He didn’t know how to use it because it was in English. I took over. I was maybe like 14.
What were you taking pictures of?
I was photographing my great-aunt, who lived with us and sat on her bed every single day sewing paj ntaub. Tapestries—Hmong tapestries. (She holds up her iPhone with an example of paj ntaub.)
So, brightly colored kind of cross-stitching?
yeah. Her bed was against the wall, and there was a sort of light that would come in. And I would take this camera, and I would photograph her, and then I would also photograph my parents from her. And I would photograph my sister. I was making these photographs already and not knowing what they were.
Looking back, what drew you to making those photographs?
I think I was really curious about the light and the way the light was hitting on her. I was making this work, not knowing what it was, not knowing what it could potentially be. And it wasn’t until community college, where I saw the work of Wing Young Huie—I think it was the first time that I saw people that look like me and my family members in photographs.
What did your family think about your decision to go to art school?
They were completely supportive, too, like really blindly supporting me. But I think that they were really confused during graduation, because there’s this ideal of what graduation is supposed to look like and MCAD’s graduation is completely different from the normal graduation. I wasn’t in a gown, and there weren’t thousands of us; there were maybe like 100 of us. So my parents have never said this to me, but I’ve heard them say it to my sisters and my brothers: “Was that really a graduation? Is that a real school?
It sounds like alternating between high anxiety and relief.
After graduate school, my dad also gave me a dental hygienist program pamphlet and was like, “OK, you’re done doing the thing that you want to do.”
After Yale, have you given a dentist pitch?
I thought it was endearing that my dad was really thinking about my best interests, but also, I know that he doesn’t understand this, and that’s really fine, too. I said, “No, Dad, this is not what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an artist.” He’s like, “I don’t know what that means.” And so I just say, “I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach at a university.” He understands that, and that, for Hmong people, is a respectable job. So my parents, when people ask them what I do, they say, “Oh, she teaches at the university.”
Does your mom know you talk shit about her silk flowers in your artist statements?
I talked to her about the flowers! My life and their life and the life of my community are the emphasis of my work. And so do they know about the Whitney? Yeah, I mean, they know that I’ll be in a show in New York. Do they know what that means? No. Does my community know? Do not.
You learned your craft at the highest levels, the coolest art school in Minnesota, and then one of the greatest art schools in the world. But who taught you about the history of your own community?
That’s a really good question. I think that nobody teaches you, right? And our parents teach us the war, right? But that’s the extent.
What did they tell you?
My dad was a soldier during the Vietnam War, but he never talked about him being a soldier during the Vietnam War. I can give you many reasons why he doesn’t bring it up. And a lot of it has to do with the trauma that he had from being in the war as a child and having to fight and having to kill people. I had a really close relationship with my maternal grandmother. She was the one watching us when my parents worked the night shift. She would tell us these stories about how they fled, having to cross the Mekong River in tire tubes, how they rubbed opium tar on my lips to keep me from crying.
When did she tell you these stories?
Started hearing them when I was maybe in first grade. I would ask, “Why are we here?” or “How was your life in Laos?” She never really talked about the death of her husband or her three sons of her who died. It was always about her working at the garden, helping her mom. I learned this sort of really romanticized history of Laos from her de ella. And it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I took it upon myself to read.
Did your dad ever talk to you about the war?
We used to drive all the way up to Devils Lake to go fishing up in North Dakota. Oftentimes it would be me and my sister and then my younger brother and my late husband. I remember one time, probably after midnight, my brother asked my dad, “Dad, did you kill anybody in the war?” And my dad thinks for a minute and he goes, “Of course. It was a war.” And for the first time, I realized the gravity of his involvement. The thing is, these stories, while they may feel unique to me, they’re not unique to the community, right? Like, I’m an opium baby, and there are a thousand more opium babies. My parents had to cross the Mekong River to get to safety, and everybody else that had to flee Laos had to cross the Mekong River, too.
At what point did your work start to be about you?
I never swayed from making work that was about me. Oh, like, the Hmong culture. I think that the work that I was making in undergrad was very much from a documentary standpoint. It was in graduate school that I really turned from making documentary photographs to really thinking conceptually about the photographs that I’m making.
It’s the one-year anniversary of your husband’s passing. You are producing an enormous amount of work—for the Biennial, for an upcoming show at Walker. Is all this work distracting you from the pain?
I don’t think that there’s ever enough time to separate from the mourning. I think I will mourn him for the rest of my life. I think that I’m very lucky, and he was so supportive of my practice, and I don’t think that I would have been able to make the work that I’ve been able to make and focus on art the way I’ ve been able to focus on art without his support.
Did he get you in a different way than your family did?
I don’t know if he ever got me. I always thought that he was, like, nerdy and that that was the attraction to him. I think that I definitely got confidence from him believing that this was going to go somewhere or that I was going to be able to become an artist. I think that he always believed in me and that is why I was able to sort of take risks in my photographic career. Like, if I took this risk and it didn’t pan out, he was always there to say, “OK, Pao, you can do something else.”
Three things about Pao Houa Her:
- Every summer weekend, she works the farmers’ market with her six siblings at her parents’ stand on University and Dale. “We’re all in it together,” she says.
- She’s been in Northern California photographing Hmong marijuana farmers for her upcoming show at the Walker.
- Four of her landscape light boxes are on display at HmongTown Marketplace. “They’re in the dining area,” she says. “You can sit right by it and touch it.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.