St. Paul photographer a pioneer in Hmong contemporary art

A new photography exhibit in St. Paul showcases the Hmong-American experience through the eyes of someone who, as a child, often felt smothered by her Hmong culture.

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“Brian and TouMeng Playing Fort” is one of the images in Hmong photographer Pao Her’s first solo gallery show “Somebody,” which is currently on display at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn.

Photo courtesy Pao Her

As Nikki Tundel reports, this past spring Pao Her became the first Hmong artist to receive an MFA from the prestigious Yale photography program.

Her’s mother and father were refugees from Laos. In 1986, when she was 4 years old, they made their way to St. Paul. As she was growing up, her parents did everything they could to shield her from American culture and strengthen her connection to her Hmong heritage.

“I remember being invited to my friend’s birthday party, and my parents telling me I couldn’t go because I was going to be the only Hmong kid there and I didn’t speak really good English,” she recalled. “I remember being so angry at my mom for not letting me go.”

Instead she spent time at home, learning how to be a proper Hmong bride and how to wash dishes in a way that would please her future in-laws. But despite all her traditional training, she chose a non-traditional path.

Renowned photographer Wing Young Huie curated Her’s show. He said what Her accomplished is remarkable.

“There really isn’t a contemporary art culture in Hmong tradition, so what Pao is doing is pioneering,” he said.

Hmong immigrants are well known for their tapestry and have made a place for themselves in the literary world, Huie noted. But photography remains a rarely celebrated medium.

“It takes a while for a new immigrant group to produce visual artists, because it’s not a very practical occupation,” he said.

In addition, Pao Her said, many traditional Hmong, like her parents, still view photography as a way to simply document birthday parties or New Year celebrations. Her fine art photos don’t fit that mold.

“My mom, she’ll say, ‘That’s not a photograph. Why aren’t they smiling?’ My parents will never fully understand, but they’re really supportive,” Her said.

You can read the rest of Nikki Tundel’s story – and see more of Her’s photography – here.

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