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Artist photographs Hmong-American experience

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'Rabbit Holding Doll'
Artist Pao Her's photograph "Rabbit Holding Doll" shows a Caucasian-looking doll wearing bracelets traditional to the Hmong community. Her's first solo show is on display at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
Photo by Pao Her

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. 

Pao Her has been described as a pioneer in the world of contemporary photography.  This spring, Her became the first Hmong artist to receive an MFA from the prestigious Yale photography program. But, for the most part, she keeps that distinction to herself. 

"My parents had no idea what Yale was," she said. "I think a lot of Hmong families don't know what Yale is or what an Ivy League school is." 

When Her set off for Yale University's New Haven, Conn., campus, she told her parents she was going to school in New York City. Unlike Yale, her parents had heard of New York and it just seemed easier for them to think that's where she was. 

Pao Her is now back in the Twin Cities, with a newly minted master's degree and her first solo show, which is currently on display at The Gordon Parks Gallery at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. 

The gallery's walls are covered with photos of Pao Her's family members -- a cousin cradling a stuffed toy, a sister decked out for Halloween, a nephew holding a toy machine gun. 

"There really isn't a contemporary art culture in Hmong tradition, so what Pao is doing is pioneering."

"After a while, you become the sister who always has a camera," she remembered. " 'And when she takes a picture of you, try not to smile because she hates that.' My brother tells everybody that."

Pao Her, 30, is drawn to such all-American images of childhood -- perhaps, she said, because her own early years were nothing like those of her much younger relatives. 

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. 

Gallery goers stand squarely in front of Pao Her's work, taking in images of Hmong-American girls holding Caucasian-looking baby dolls and Hmong-American boys making forts from couch pillows. 

"The work is about this second generation of kids that have very little knowledge of the Hmong culture," Her said.

These kids were raised with Little League and American television. Theirs is the lifestyle Her dreamed of when she was young. But today she's saddened by how little they know about their Hmong heritage.  

It's that cultural push and pull that's at the heart of the photo exhibit. 

"I am interested in that hybrid of a Hmong person in American society," said Her. "What do you have to give and what do you take? What do you gain and what do you lose?"

Her's 16-year-old sister Celina weaves her way through the gallery, smiling.  

"I'm really happy that she chose to work outside of what your Hmong parents expect you to do," she said. "It's amazing. And I'm so happy for her. "

Pao Her may not like to talk herself up. Luckily her siblings are honored to do it for her. 

Her's photography exhibit is on display through Oct. 5.