Arts and Culture

Artist Pao Houa Her launches new art and first book, drawing on Hmong heritage

a woman stands by five TVs
Minnesota artist Pao Houa Her with her new video installation "Nim ye" at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Her says its the most personal work she's ever made.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Artist Pao Houa Her stands in front of five chunky television sets from the ‘90s.

Their screens flash through videos of pairs of men and women singing a “kwv txhiaj,” a traditional and improvised style of Hmong tonal poem often performed as call and response. The TVs are set in the Bockley Gallery of Minneapolis, where the aching hum of the singers bounces off the bare walls.

Her, who was a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow, says it’s the most personal work she’s ever made. The artist is known for a photographic canon that uses portrait and landscape to explore notions of home and belonging, family lore and the Hmong diaspora. 

The video installation, “Nim ye,” will be up at the gallery through June 22. The artist grew up listening to the song poems. She likens them to a form of rap battle or poetry exchange.

“The way I came into kwv txhiaj was really through my mom and dad, and their love for kwv txhiaj,” says Her, who was born in Laos and grew up in Minnesota. ‘It was something that they would play every day as a child for my siblings and I as background noise for us.” 

She says her parents would buy VHS tapes from Hmong filmmakers and play them on TVs just like the ones in the gallery.

“Kwv txhiaj has been with the Hmong diaspora for a really long time. You could trace it all the way back to China,” Her says. 

“Nim ye” is personal for another reason. The project touches on her husband Ya Yang, who died three years ago from a brain hemorrhage. Last June, the artist traveled to Laos to film singers performing kwv txhiaj. She had told her collaborators in Laos that she wanted the poems to be about loss and grief. The singers asked if they could sing about Her and her husband.

a woman poses with a book
Minnesota artist Pao Houa Her with her new book "My grandfather turned into a tiger ... and other illusions" at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

“We went and we found this place called the Valley of Widows,” Her says. They filmed one of the videos there. “It starts with the woman. The woman sings about our life as living beings, and then she grieves for my husband’s death. And the man, he sings from the perspective of my dead husband, who has died. And it’s just back and forth.”  

She says that the video installation is also about starting over — just as the videos continuously reboot and loop the beginning of the poem.

These continuous poetic beginnings are “nim ye,” the name Her has given her exhibit. She says in the Hmong tradition, this part of the poem is rarely even written down, and here she focuses on it.

“This installation is an accumulation of the singers singing nim ye,” she says. “There’s always this sort of reboot, this starting over again, and again and again. I really liked that tension.”

Hand opens a book
There will be a book launch with the artist for "My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions" on Saturday at the Midway Gallery in Minneapolis.
Courtesy Midway Contemporary Art, photos by Candice Davis

The photographer is also releasing her first book this week, “My grandfather turned into a tiger … and other illusions.” The book presents a lush and intimate collection of photos from the last decade of Her’s career. It also features several essays and a Q&A.

“The thing that’s really exciting for me is that for as long as I’ve been a photographer, I’ve always had a really hard time finding Asian writers to write about my work,” Her says. “And the book is filled with amazing Asian writers.”

These include Hmong Californian poet Mai Der Vang and the Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang of Minnesota. The texts are intentionally not printed in black and white.

“They’re in these hot pinks, hot purples, hot blues. They pay homage to the traditional colors in Hmong traditional wear,” Her says.

There will be a book launch for "My grandfather turned into a tiger … and other illusions" 11 a.m. Saturday, May 18, at the Midway Gallery in Minneapolis. There will be a talk with Her and the Hmong Minnesota playwright May Lee-Yang.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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