After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw

Accompanying Emplotment 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 June 14. Anchoring these photographs is a single junglescape taken by Her in 2019 during a residency in Laos (pictured right), displayed in the Or Gallery’s street facing window.

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, 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.

The photographs depict 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, unseat 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.

Untitled (jungle in Laos), 2019
Shelter Location Map

In situ photos courtesy of Capture Photography Festival.

All Artwork © Pao Houa Her, 2020.
Courtesy of the artist and Bockley Gallery.