Pao Houa Her: Emplotment
Curated by Godfre Leung
May – June, 2020
This on-line program supports the exhibition Pao Houa Her: Emplotment.
The project consists of three components: Her’s photographs from the exhibition arranged as a photo essay, documentation of the public art project After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw, and documentation of the multisensory installation Green Rush.
After the Fall of
Hmong-American artist Pao Houa Her takes a kaleidoscope to photographic portraiture. Foreground and background reverse, alternate, bifurcate, and lead their viewers on scavenger hunts and wild goose chases. Her’s photographs, one might say, are ungrounded.
Over the last decade, Her’s work has explored the diasporic condition of her community, transplanted to the United States after escaping 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).
Conventionally, the backdrops in Hmong portraiture stand in for an absent ground. Most often, they depict opium fields and jungles in the mountains of Laos. But this is not a Laos that one can literally re-migrate to; the backdrops’ mountainscapes emblematize a golden era of Hmong wealth, largely by way of the Hmong’s expertise in opium cultivation, before the Laotian Civil War and the subsequent exodus of Hmong people as refugees.
Green Rush, a new multisensory sculptural installation, borrows its title from a 2017 New York Times article, which coined the term to describe an ongoing wave of Hmong migrant workers decamping to Northern California to apply their traditional agricultural knowledge to marijuana farming. It depicts the resettling of the Hmong dream in Northern California hills previously thought to be barren, instantiating the elusive ground of Hmong portraiture and the kaleidoscopic gaze of the migrant imaginary.
Accompanying this work is a public art project adapted from Her’s photographic series After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw (2017–present), displayed on transit shelters around Vancouver from March 30 to June 14, 2020.
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, the finding of a land-place. As 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.”
—Godfre Leung, April 2020
At the same time as we acknowledge that this exhibition takes place on the unceded territories of the xwməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh First Nations, we also acknowledge its presence in Vancouver’s Chinatown and in the vicinity of the Downtown Eastside. In creating this project, we have kept closely in mind the overlap between poppy iconography in the Hmong diasporic context and the complex history of Chinatown and the ongoing opioid crisis in the DTES. While these discussions and their potential intersections are not immediately legible in the exhibition itself, we present our work in solidarity with the inhabitants of these two neighbourhoods and encourage our viewers to support their community organizations and explore their histories. Among countless others, two places to start are Youth Collaborative for Chinatown / 青心在唐人街 and the Carnegie Community Centre.
We also ask respectfully that anybody who visits the exhibition please do so as safely as possible with respect to the vulnerable populations of Or Gallery’s surrounding neighbourhoods.
– Godfre and Pao, June 1, 2020
All Artwork © Pao Houa Her, 2020.
Courtesy of the artist and Bockley Gallery.