Emplotment (photo essay)

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.

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.

Not pictured here is the exhibition’s centrepiece, the new multisensory sculptural installation Green Rush. It is represented in this photo essay by the three photographs of the Laotian jungle that serve as the sculpture’s backdrop.

Green Rush 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.

Images, top to bottom, left to right:

1. untitled (opium in Rush City, Minnesota), 2019

2. My Grandmother’s Favorite Grandchild – Pao Houa, 2017

3. Tojsiab Woman, 2015

4. untitled (fake flower stand with opium backdrop in Laos), 2019

5. Mekong River, 2017

6. Opium Flowers in North Mpls, 2019

7. untitled (opium in Rush City, Minnesota), 2019

8. untitled (landscape in Laos), 2017

9. untitled (landscape in Laos), 2017

10. untitled (landscape in Laos), 2017

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