Excerpted with permission from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. View the original article with additional photos, which was published in CUT/PASTE Vol. 3 in June 2022.
Pao Houa Her MCAD ’09 makes powerful photographs documenting the Hmong diaspora in the United States. Drawing from traditions of Western portraiture and still life, her work represents a narrative extension of her family’s memories of fleeing Laos and the stories of ethnic Hmong communities following the Vietnam War.
A rotating selection of Pao’s photography is now on view at the Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet It as It’s Kept through September 5. She spoke with MCAD’s Communications Marketing Manager Gregory Gestner.
Did you arrive at MCAD with the idea to major in photography? How did your work evolve?
I was studying at a community college and close to graduating with an associate degree. When I took a photography class, it changed the trajectory of my life. I transferred to MCAD knowing that I was going to major in photography. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that I wanted to make photographs. It was at MCAD where I learned how to see, how to think, and how to read photographs.
Did you have a mentor or favorite teacher?
I was mentored by the whole Photography Department. David [Goldes], Katherine [Turczan], Stevie [Rexroth], and Rik [Sferra] are all my favorites. David connected photography and poetry for me. Katherine taught me to see. Stevie taught me to see my subject. Rik taught me to see light. They all helped me build my foundation so I am really grateful to them.
How did you end up going to Yale after MCAD?
I knew before I graduated from MCAD that I wanted to go to graduate school, so during my junior and senior years I worked hard to build my portfolio. If you had asked me two years before applying if I knew what Yale was, I would have said no. With the help of Katherine, David, Stevie, Rik, and Paul Shambroom, I got into all the programs I applied to.
What has it been like being selected for the Whitney Biennial? What work will you be showing?
Before being selected for the Whitney Biennial, the process was a mystery to me. Back in early March 2020 I received a text from my gallerist telling me that the Whitney curators wanted to do a studio visit. After meeting with the curators, I was selected. I couldn’t tell anyone, so for two years I kept the secret. The Biennial will show six rotating bodies of work. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about being in the show. As an artist I am taught that this is what I should strive for. But at the end of the day, I am just Pao Houa Her from Minnesota making work about her own community and happy to be given the chance to show it in New York.
What’s next for you? Any projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
After the Whitney Biennial, I will have an exhibition at Walker Art Center. I’ve been photographing the West and its landscape, specifically northern California. Hmong folks have been moving there and buying up land to cultivate marijuana. I’m interested in the landscape, its history, the Hmong people there, and their history of agriculture in Southeast Asia and in America.