by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Pao Houa Her is presenting a new body of photographic works produced during the global pandemic in her new solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minnesota. Titled Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, the series was primarily shot in Northern California, around Mount Shasta, an active volcano in Siskiyou County. Her tells the story of her community, the Hmong diaspora in the United States, highlighting lived experiences of land and migration, surveillance and targeted violence, agricultural sustenance and resilience, allowing the landscape to speak through her photographs.
The art exhibition takes its title from a phrase in the Hmong language, for growing the cannabis plant and cultivating marijuana. Tracing a regional history, she speaks about the mass migration of the Hmong diaspora to Northern California in recent history, their illegal cultivation of the plant, and its repercussions.
“I am more interested in the landscape because I think that there are so many layers to uncover. Northern California historically has been this marijuana haven. People have grown it in the region since the 1960s, and it wasn’t until recently that the local government paid attention to this area, because of the mass migration of Hmong people who bought land and began cultivating illegal commercial marijuana. That land has this racist history up until the present moment. Hmong people have always been given land that is deemed un-useful. They have been really resilient in their agricultural practice so I am also interested in that other aspect of the conversation or history. So, my question was - how do I make a body of work about Hmong people and our history, and then this land (Northern California), and its history?"
The visual artist and her family moved to the US in the mid-80s, settling down in Minnesota, where she continues to live and work. In a conversation with STIR, the artist speaks about how her initiation into photography began at an early age, originating from her father’s love for the medium, where he would extensively record family moments and occasions. Fondly, Her mentions how she and her sister would show their father how to use each new camera or video recorder that was purchased. She later went on to pursue the discipline through formal training, receiving an MFA in photography from the Yale School of Art.
The medium of documentation is layered with history as Her refers to photography as an institution of colonialism, where the camera is identified in post-colonial thought as an apparatus for identification and control over populations. Tracing the dissemination of photography in her own cultural context, Her tells STIR, “Studio portraiture wasn’t introduced to Laos until the French colonised it in the 1940s. So from then on we have a very specific style of portraiture that can be seen in other countries, usually starting after being colonised by the West or Europe.” She speaks to the particular dissemination of photographic style and visual references to the West that essentially served as advertisements to draw in settlers. The Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, a reference point for the artist, saw 300,000 people coming to California.
Having worked with portraiture in the context of her community, Her moves past identification towards an engagement with the landscape (notably, another historical genre in image-making), where the arid place is captured, with only slight traces of human activity. Rather than photographing those involved in the operations behind cultivating the taboo plant, the artist situates the landscape within a historicised present.
Her speaks about coming across an article titled The Green Rush (congruent to the Gold Rush), that spoke about the mass migration of Hmong people to California in order to join or create their own marijuana operations, and particularly about a Hmong family that purchased land in Siskiyou county, and in order to surveil the particular area, the local government used Google Earth satellites. She deploys Google Earth satellite images in conversation with the photographed images, extending the boundaries of what we define as the landscape image, while at the same time speaking to the surveilled image. The community is known to have grown opium in 1960s Laos, which is suggested to have been translated to the marijuana trade - another reminder to the historical allotment of uninhabitable and uncultivable land to the Hmong people. Another interest of the artist is the phenomenon of Hmong people becoming illegal millionaires for the first time in recent history.
The particular absence of people is striking and it is only the traces that lend a surreal quality to the photographs. A plastic bag caught on the branch of a bare tree, thick electrical wires, crates, a truck-like vehicle all indicate concealed human activity. One has to look closely in order to detect any signs of movement in otherwise still, scenic images. Her's choice to keep the identities of those involved in the operations outside the image is conscious as she speaks about having taken portraits in the farms she's visited, but at the same time being aware of the power she or the image, in turn, can possess.
“It would be really easy to go there (Mount Shasta) and document the people and growing operations there, but I think it’s another thing to photograph the land, and use an apparatus that speaks to a history of the West and the specific place, apart from speaking to the history of Hmong people. In some ways I hope that I have achieved it, but I am also an artist who is constantly trying to evolve. I think that what’s really great about this is that it’s always a work in progress. I wanted to bring complexity to the issue, which I thought could be brought out in the landscape rather than the people and the operation,” she says.
The exhibition Paj Qaum Ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, by Pao Houa Her at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, United States, is on view until January 22, 2023.