Figures in the Landscape: Pao Houa Her

Pao Houa Her, Kuv nco koj, rov qab los (I miss you, come back), 2022
two-channel video and audio installation
photo by Eric Mueller, Walker Art Center

“Portraiture in its photographical form may not be present in Her’s Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, but as a theme, it is tacit in every work,” writes Ruby Jeune Tresch for Sixty Inches From Center. Best known for her portraits, Pao Houa Her’s Walker Art Center solo show captures the environs near California’s Mount Shasta, where Hmong immigrants have found prosperity cultivating marijuana. Aside from a two-channel video installation, which features a woman in Minnesota and a man in Laos both singing Hmong folk songs, people are absent. But, as Tresch writes:

Long rubber hoses twist down dirt paths and tangle in skirting bushes, a plastic bag clings to the tip of a slouching branch, sheets of hardware cloth shield bagged plants, a camper van sits nestled in the grasses. Human activity is everywhere in Her’s landscapes. Her images deviate from the inclinations of early American West photographers in suggesting the majesty of the seemingly untouched, and instead offer up a land laden with intervention. Within the landscape, a portrait of a people emerges.

She positions Her’s photography within the context of famed chroniclers of the American West, like Ansel Adams, Carlton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, while also noting the unique perspective Her brings:

Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky provides a contemporary take by offering a window into the lives of a people reestablishing cultural identities and histories via earthly intervention. The Hmong community settled on this land provide the mediation it requires and with that, continue to reestablish the rural lifestyles of their roots. A revisitation to past prosperity in opium agriculture is allowed for and with it, a holistic cultural return. Through still and moving images, Her prods at the boundaries between landscape and portraiture, identity and place, human and earth. She lays out the joining of a past and a present—a place and a people. 

Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky closes on January 22, 2023.