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Artist Pao Houa Her was a toddler in the mid-'80s when she first saw a white man charging through the jungle in a film. She was at an open-air theater in a refugee camp in Thailand.

"It was the 'Rambo' film where he was tapped to go to Vietnam to rescue people, and I remember thinking that it wasn't a movie but an actual documentary about this guy," Her, 40, said over lunch at the Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, where four of her lightbox photos, including one of fake flowers in a darkened restaurant, hang in the dining area.

Her, the first Hmong American to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University, grew up on St. Paul's East Side after her family fled northern Laos for the United States. Her work centers on the Hmong American experience, blending the fictional and documentary, staged and natural. She is fascinated by and constantly discovering new ripples within her diasporic community, yet also critical of it.

On Thursday, she opens "Paj qaum ntuj/ Flowers of the Sky" at the Walker Art Center. It's her first solo exhibition at the institution and a fitting follow-up to her inclusion in this year's prestigious 80th Whitney Biennial in New York City, where six bodies of work are on view at different times through Sept. 5. Her work also is shown internationally and she is represented by Bockley Gallery.

She shot her new series of 16 color prints, seven black-and-white lightboxes and a two-channel video in the rural Mount Shasta region of Northern California. Many Hmong American farmers seasonally migrate there to capitalize on legally growing marijuana, part of California's "Green Rush," echoing the mid-1800s Gold Rush, and also experience anti-Asian racism.

"Pao has this unique ability to evoke a certain longing and nostalgia for land and language that speaks to the Hmong American imagination, but also to the collective imagining of many other immigrant communities in the U.S.," Walker curator Victoria Sung said.

Visual form of narrative storytelling

The exhibition title, pronounced "paah kohm duu," translates to "flowers of the sky," a Hmong phrase that references marijuana cultivation. Her photos play off of commercial advertising imagery and recall romanticized images of the West by Ansel Adams, yet simultaneously subvert those tropes.

Her work is generally inspired by facets of the Hmong American experience she discovers along the way. Her 2015 series "Attention," portraits of Hmong veterans who fought in the "secret war" in Laos but weren't recognized by the U.S. government, came about after she saw a group of vets at a funeral.

The 2016 series "My Mother's Flowers" stemmed from the fake flowers she noticed in her parents' house and on Hmong dating website profiles where Hmong American men search for "pure" Laotian women to marry. Her 2017 series "My grandfather turned into a tiger" came from family folklore and a trip to Laos and Thailand.

Sprinkled throughout are memories.

"I remember eating ice cream and throwing the cone away because I didn't know that you could eat it," Her said. "Or learning how to eat with a fork in school. I had never seen a fork in my entire life. ... I think about [those memories] a lot when I'm making photographs because photography is such an American thing."

The CIA recruited Hmong people, indigenous to southwest China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, to fight Northern Vietnamese Communists in the "secret war." When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the Hmong fled, though many still live in the jungles of Laos, forgotten by America. Thousands came to the United States, many settling in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her's family was among them.

Her dad, Nenghou Her, is a retired factory worker who now spends his days tending chickens and gardening. Her mom, Mao Lee, works as a senior day care provider.

Her, the eldest of seven, has taught at Macalester College and in the fall will become an assistant professor in photography and moving images at the University of Minnesota.

She was expelled from two high schools for truancy but eventually got a GED diploma and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Prof. David Goldes met her when she was a second-year student. He and the other students immediately were struck by Her's photos of her family members standing between hanging sheets of plastic at her in-laws' home.

"Those photos were the start of her longer exploration of this displaced Indigenous group of Hmong people," Goldes said. "She started with her family."

At Yale, Her, Richard Choi and Tommy Kha were the only Asian Americans in the photo department. They formed a tightly knit posse and maintain a text thread to this day.

Kha described Her as a big sister.

"Pao's pictures were very familiar ... filled with people who looked like me and that was pretty radical," Kha said. "To see that was so normal for us, but also so impactful and not very understood by our classmates, who didn't know what it meant to be an immigrant or have conversations about fleeing countries because of war, border disputes, military … or what it was like to be first- or second-generation."

She describes herself as "not the best student, and sometimes not the best person" in high school, but she always loved photography.

When she saw Duluth-born Chinese American photographer Wing Young Huie's "Frogtown" series in 2005, documenting the St. Paul neighborhood that's home to many Southeast Asian immigrants, she finally saw her community represented.

Photos and family

On a hot summer afternoon in June, she sat on the carpeted floor of her home office in Blaine flipping through photo books while her nephew Vince, 6, drew on an iPad and niece Kaylee, 7,dozed on the couch as TV cartoons blared.

Her most prized photo book contains a 2008 series by photographer Deana Lawson, who makes intimate photos of Black communities, similar to those Her creates with Hmong communities. It was a gift from Her's late husband, Ya Yang, who died of a brain hemorrhage in March 2021.

"Deana is making these sort of family portraits that feel like they could be in any family album and that defy what stereotypical images of African Americans could look like," she said.

Yang, who she married at age 20 and had known since junior high, always supported her photography dreams.

Several years before Yang died, the couple began to look after Ya's older brother's kids, Kaylee and Vince, when their parents went to Northern California to farm marijuana.

When Yang died, the kids "saved her," she said, especially on days when she couldn't get up.

"Vince is always telling me he doesn't like it when I cry. He'll ask: 'Why are you crying?'" she said, as tears filled her eyes. "He likes to be around me all the time."

Her new work is set in Northern California. The photos are absent of people.

"In the photos you see the traces of human activity, and how that kind of intermingles with the landscape," Sung said. "The images are these stark landscape photographs, but when you look closely, you'll see a hose or netting material — small traces [of humanity]."


Pao Houa Her: "Paj qaum ntuj / Flowers of the Sky"

Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Plac, Mpls.

When: Ends Jan 22, 2023.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Sat. & Sun.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri.

Info: 612-375-7600 or

Cost: $2-$15.

Pao Houa Her's opening day talk, Thurs. at 6 p.m., Walker Cinema. Tickets available starting at 5 p.m. on the day of in the Main Lobby. Free. Masks required.