MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — At the age of four, in 1986, Pao Houa Her sought refuge from Laos with her family in the US. By 2011, she became the first Hmong woman to graduate from Yale’s MFA program, focusing her photography on Hmong refugee populations in the US. Currently up at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis is My Mother’s Flowers, Her’s new body of work where she pairs lo-fi studio shots of her mother’s collection of silk flowers with profile pictures that Hmong women use on dating sites. Most of these women post pictures of themselves posing with flowers, often standing next to real trees or before studio backdrops. According to Her, though such social networks publicly market themselves for dating, these women, living in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, in fact seek Hmong-American suitors to send money to their families and deliver them to the US.
Her’s mother has amassed countless bouquets of silk flowers, collecting dust in corners of Her’s childhood home or cast away into the basement. The juxtaposition of flowers in My Mother’s Flowers bridges the lives of Hmong women around the world as a symbol of the search for a better life.
On the night of the opening last month I was chatting with Her as photographer Wing Young Huie arrived. Back in 2012 Huie curated one of Her’s first exhibitions, Somebody, at Gordon Parks Gallery at Metro State University. Since 1995 Huie has produced massive public art projects, his most recent being University Avenue Project (2010), spanning six miles of University Avenue in Twin Cities. These days he’s narrowed his focus with a book project, Chinese-ness, a series of stories and portraits of Chinese-American immigrants, adoptees, and his fellow American-born Chinese — sometimes referred to as ABC’s. Together Her’s and Wing’s projects capture a working image of the Asian-American experience.
We sat down again a few weeks later and discussed the cultural gulf between first and second generation immigrant and refugee families, the ways photographs represent our selective memories, and Her’s own significance as a distinguished female voice in the Hmong-American community.
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Nathan Robert Payne Young: Pao, some of your earlier projects touch on studio photography, an activity popular among some Hmong-American communities. With businesses like Xiong Portraits in St. Paul’s Hmong Village, what is it about posing for pictures with costumes and backdrops that you, your friends, and your family find so compelling?
Pao Houa Her: My earliest memories of Thailand, being in the refugee camps, are actually these memories of getting our portraits taken at one of these places. And thinking about it now, and looking at countless studio portraits, for a lot of us it’s a way out of reality, right? Once you’re in front of this backdrop that’s usually very floral, or usually an iconic image, and you put on clothes that you don’t wear every day, shiny clothes, maybe things you wear once a year, maybe for the Hmong New Year, or even clothes that you don’t actually have yourself — like at Xiong Portraits they have clothes from all over the world, Chinese outfits, Vietnamese outfits, wedding gowns. I think what it does is transport you out of your own reality. You’re this reimagined person, and I want to say, for a lot of us, that’s the allure of studio portraits.
NRPY: Pictures on the walls of Xiong Portraits show iconic images of poppies and Hmong regalia. What were the backdrops and costumes for studios in Thailand?
PHH: They were these painted backdrops, sometimes of mountainscapes or of Hmong villages, and always prop plants at the sides. I think a lot of Hmong folks from my parents’ era and my own era who were born or spent time in Laos have these pictures. These are pictures that we carry, that I still have of my parents, of us.
NRPY: Two of the three types of pictures in this exhibition are either found studio portraits of Hmong women posing for online dating sites, or studio shoots that you’ve personally produced. Could you tell us about these dating sites, and why you grouped the two types of portraiture?
PHH: With these dating sites, Hmong men go overseas to look for a “pure Hmong woman,” one who has not been altered, a Hmong woman that is very Hmong, that, you know, hasn’t been influenced by Western ideology.
Wing Young Huie: These are Hmong men in the US looking for —
PHH: — for Hmong girls not in the US.
NRPY: And what’s their idea of the “pure Hmong woman”?
PHH: Well, there’s a general conversation that happens in our community among Hmong men when asked why they need to go to Laos to find these girls. And the conversation always comes down to them saying, “girls here are too Westernized, and because they’re Westernized they use Western rules and social norms and so they can’t be Hmong.” They have their own ideas of how a Hmong woman should behave in front of their husband.
NRPY: Wing, this reminds me of a few pictures from your project, Frogtown, of a Hmong family in a suburban house conducting a ceremony for a sick child. A shaman’s there with a live pig on the ground, eventually they gut the pig —
WYH: — and drink the blood.
NRPY: Right, and you have this picture of the men doing their work and then another with all the women in a different room eating together.
PHH: Yes, there’s a huge separation and that’s there in our culture. The men kill the pig, the women do the prep, we set the table for the men, and we eat the men’s leftovers. It’s a practice, it’s our tradition. And actually, can I just say, Wing, your work was essentially the reason why I became a photographer. Because, Wing, you’ve had these public exhibitions on Lake Street and University Avenue and in Frogtown and the community has been able to see your work, which is something remarkable in itself. Not only have you inspired me to become a photographer, I truly believe that you’ve influenced a whole generation of Hmong artists. When I saw Frogtown it was the first time that I saw myself. I’d never ever seen images of my people like those before.
PHH: It was the first time I saw myself, and I thought, “this is what I want to do.”
NRPY: Before seeing Frogtown, were you actively aware of the images around you, that you were not being reflected back? Thinking, these people aren’t me, I am not them.
PHH: Oh, yeah! Absolutely. So I knew of Diane Arbus before Wing, and I knew August Sanders, and thinking, oh these are great, but I specifically remember a photo that Wing took of my uncle who —
WYH: — I photographed your uncle?
PHH: You photographed a lot of my family members! You have this portrait of my uncle, who killed himself in the very same place that you photographed. He’s there with all my other uncles. So with Frogtown I’m seeing for the first time these pictures of my people, literally my family.
WYH: Wow. But, Pao, your relationship to photography, I mean it’s no different from anybody’s. You think about weddings and wedding photographers: what do those pictures have to do with the wedding? They’re idealized versions, so you look at the photo, you show it, you keep it for generations and everyone remembers your life through that idealized, glamorized memory.
PHH: You know, I don’t think of photography as just memory. For me photography is never real. It’s fiction. Think of this show now, and the decision to choose a photograph. The photograph in front of us is like the selected memory in our minds. So maybe it’s not that photography is fiction, but photography is selected memory.
WYH: I feel like what I’m seeing in your work here is a collision of different intentions and all the artifice at the same time. So, one of these men on these sites, where they grew up they had all the power, and they come here, they don’t speak English, they don’t have power, their kids do the translating for them. They want to go back home, to that time. They want that again, through a pure, young girl. These dating sites … they’re not really dating sites.
WYH: They’re a business transaction.
WYH: My first thought is, this woman is selling herself. And for what?
NRPY: Because the agreement is that this Hmong man will deliver her from Laos or wherever back to the US, right?
PHH: Oh, yes.
WYH: And the family’s helping, they’re helping sell her wife duties. It’s heartbreaking. All of these realities are converging. It’s all imagined, romanticized, and then real.
NRPY: So this exhibition’s titled My Mother’s Flowers. As you set up the low-key photo studio in your mother’s home, how did she respond, and what has been her reaction to the printed images?
PHH: My mom has never been to an opening. I think in some ways she doesn’t really get the concept of being an artist. So when I do set up these studios in our house, and as I’ve photographed her before, she’s supportive and she helps, she allows it to happen, but …
WYH: Same with my mom. Art has no meaning for our mothers. They just want you to do well. The cultural gulf between the first and second generation — you never really understanding why she did this, and her not getting what you’re up to, it’s really the same, it’s you two trying to connect, it’s unknowable. I see these flowers, they’re our mothers — frozen in time, collecting dust. Now my parents never set foot in a museum. Why would they? They’re immigrants. Art’s a luxury. For you, Pao, to go to Yale, just to understand what that culture’s like, it’s unfathomable for them.
PHH: Hmong folks have only been in the US for about 40 years and so it’s still very much about survival. Parents think, hey let’s get our kids to be doctors and lawyers and successful in elite, traditional, reliable ways.
WYH: There have been three or four waves of generations of Chinese immigrants to the US. But how many Chinese artists can you name? How many directors? How long does this take? It’s a luxury. You know, Pao, in a sense, what you’re doing now has taken me 30 years to figure out. I had to photograph thousands of people before I could really think about and make art about my family. It’s your idea of Laos, and the reality; the young girl’s idea of marriage, and the reality; ideas of America, and the reality; the older men and their ideas of the past. Your photographs are a culmination of layers and layers of cultural illusions.
NRPY: Wing, your family also migrated to America, from Guangzhou, China. But you were born in Duluth. Could you tell about your current project, Chine-ness, and about your relationship with your families’ migration?
WYH: When I went to China for the first time, six years ago, I was working for the US Embassy and Arts Midwest on a new program showing the US through a Chinese-American’s eyes, and traveled to 10 cities in China. Coming from Minnesota, inside I felt like everyone else, but outside I stuck out. And in China, where I look like everyone, but inside I really feel like a foreigner, it all made me think, what if? How would my life have turned out if my family never left China? So what if I owned a restaurant like my dad, or became an engineer like my brother, or, if I turned like my mom really wanted, which was to marry a nice Chinese woman and have nice Chinese kids — that didn’t happen. So I decided to photograph men whose lives I could have had, and then I gave them the camera and asked to wear their clothes and have them photograph me. Then I put the photographs together as a diptych as a way to try and understand, what if?
NRPY: Do you think, Pao, if you never left Laos, that you might have been one of these women in your own exhibition?
PHH: Yes, all the time. I think about the Hmong narrative in the US and it lacks a female perspective. If you think about Hmong oral history, it’s always Hmong men telling our history, and they block our voices. Even our story cloths from the 1970s from the refugee camps. The Hmong men decided the story and the women did the sewing. With my photography it’s important that the female voice and perspective becomes center stage.
Pao Houa Her: My Mother’s Flowers continues at Bockley Gallery (2123 W 21st Street, Minneapolis, Minn.) through August 6.