Pao Houa Her: Emplotment
Pao Houa Her
Opening Postponed Indefinitely during COVID 19 — Saturday June 14, 2020

Curated by Godfre Leung

Opening Reception Friday March 27, 7PM CANCELLED

Artist Talk with Pao Houa Her and curator Godfre Leung Saturday, March 28, 2pm CANCELLED

While the exhibition Pao Houa Her: Emplotment is postponed due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the public art project After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw can be viewed in ten bus shelters around Vancouver from March 30 to May 10. Please refer to the Google map on this page for locations. The eleventh photograph, to be exhibited in Or’s front window, is reproduced here.

Image: Pao Houa Her, Untitled (Jungle in Laos), 2019.
Download enlarged image.

Over the last decade, Hmong-American artist Pao Houa Her has explored the diasporic condition of her community after its escape as refugees from the conflicts following the American War in Vietnam. Emplotment features new and recent work on the slippery Hmong concept tebchaw (literally land-place, but variously used to denote region, nation-state, home, or homeland).

Emplotment is a formal term used by historians and literary critics to describe the foundation of all histories as kinds of storytelling. In this exhibition, it also alludes to the pursuit of tebchaw in the Hmong imagination (finding a land-place). As Pao Houa Her states: “The idea of having our own land has been a longstanding desire of older Hmong folks. I want to explore this desire for homeland, to make a body of work that tells the history of the Hmong people, their displacement from the war, arriving and living here in America, this desire to ‘go back’ to the make believe of this country or what this country means, or to remake it in new locations.”

Green Rush (2020), a new scent-based installation, reflects on the nostalgia for the Hmong’s mid-twentieth-century prosperity in Laos, intergenerational transmission of Hmong agricultural practices, and new forms of Hmong wealth in diaspora. It takes its title from a 2017 New York Times article on the recent growth in Hmong participation in marijuana farming, “California’s ‘Green Rush’ Takes Hmong Back to Their Opium-Growing Roots.”

Accompanying this new work is a public art project adapted from Her’s photographic series After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw (2017–present). The photographs are displayed in transit shelters around Vancouver from March 30 to May 10. Anchoring these photographs is a single junglescape—taken by Her in 2019 during a residency in Laos—intimated by the artificial plants and the tropical plant environment in the bus shelters. Until it can be installed in Or Gallery’s street facing front window, we present it here online.

The namesake of After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw reveals much about the photographs’ meditation on the complexity of national imaginaries and the practices of belief that they engender.

In 2016, a conman named Seng Xiong claimed to be working with the US White House and United Nations to secure land in Southeast Asia for the stateless Hmong people. The future Hmong nation was to be called Hmong Tebchaw. His scheme defrauded more than $1.7 million, mostly from Hmong seniors in St. Paul, Minnesota, home to the world’s largest urban Hmong population. In 2017, Xiong was sentenced to 87 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $1.2 million in restitution to his victims.

Vernacular Hmong studio portraiture usually seats its subjects in front of a painted backdrop of Laotian plantlife, usually junglescapes or poppy-dotted mountains. Following this convention, half of the photographs in After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw depict Hmong seniors, most of whom resettled in the United States as refugees, backed by rich jungle-like arrangements of artificial plants. These photographs are set at the Hmong Elders Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the community sites most heavily targeted by Xiong.

The other half of the series takes place at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s tropical plant environment, an important stand-in for “home” for the St. Paul Hmong community. Her’s photographs foreground these actual jungle plants’ transplanted backdrop in snowy Minnesota.

After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw depicts the ungraspable nature of Hmong Tebchaw by inverting and confounding portraiture’s foundational device of figure and ground and, dispersed in bus shelters around Vancouver, unseats the idea of a physical territory while paying respect to the desire for it.

Desire, as we see in these photographs, manifests in many different ways: in community, in the expedient ambience of fake flowers, in the somatic comfort of warm air and tropical scents, in expedition trips back “home,” and in the aftermath of Seng Xiong’s trial, when dozens of his victims organized and vowed to reinvest their restitution payments to help secure his legal exoneration and ultimately to continue his work.

Emplotment is Pao Houa Her’s first exhibition in Western Canada. It is also the first installment of UNSTATELY, a yearlong series of projects on statehood and statelessness curated by Godfre Leung at various institutions.

Pao Houa Her is a visual artist living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. She works across multiple genres and technologies of photography to address Hmong identity and related notions of desire and belonging within the Hmong American community. Pao was born in the northern jungles of Laos in 1982. With her family she fled the conflict resulting from the American War in Vietnam—like many others, by crossing the Mekong River as an opium-fed baby on her mother’s back. After living in refugee camps within Thailand’s borders, Pao and her family were sent to the United States in 1986. Pao holds a BFA in Photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MFA in Photography from Yale University. She is the recipient of many prestigious fellowships and grants, and has exhibited extensively in Minnesota, as well as across the United States, and more recently, in Southeast Asia. She is represented by Bockley Gallery.

Godfre Leung is a critic and curator based in the territory currently known as Vancouver. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Art in America, C Magazine, and Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and publications by institutions including the Museum of Modern Art and Walker Art Center. Recent publications include contributions to the exhibition catalogues Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Rung Hoang/Empty Forest and Samson Young: It’s a heaven over there, and the collaborative artists’ book AA4 by Peter Happel Christian and Phillip Andrew Lewis.

This project was made possible with the generous assistance of project grants by the British Columbia Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts, an emergency grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a printing grant from Tricera Print, the sponsorship of the City of Vancouver Transit Shelter Advertisement Program, and the catalyzing support of Joni Cheung and !Klodyne Rodney. This exhibition is part of the 2020 Capture Photography Festival Selected Exhibition Program.

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Or Gallery

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