Pao Houa Her’s Family Illusions

My grandfather turned into a tiger… collects the artist’s landscapes and portraits that occupy an in-between space

The photographs collected in this monograph by Minnesota-based Hmong-American artist Pao Houa Her are drawn from six series of works, 80 photos in all, made between 2012 and 2022 (the title series is from 2016–17). Assembled here interleaved with one another and at varying scales, in full colour and in black-and-white, they resonate in ways that are no doubt more nuanced than within each individual series, and yet in the wholeness of the combined works perhaps also more summary: a portrait of uprootedness and the measures taken to survive in new soil. The photos shift between formal and candid portraits, and scenes in which nature – forced to pose as well – appears to protest and fidget. The settings recall family photographs: aunts and sisters, nephews, cousins, grandmothers and uncles dressed in uniform, traditional dress, positioned before lurid photo-studio backdrops or natural beauty spots in both the us and Laos and elsewhere; or posed more casually, some in North American gardens, lounges and utility rooms, where nature, both real and imitation (plastic flowers, plants), is roped into the frame, frequently dominating the image, or promising to. Landscapes from the Mount Shasta series (2021–21) read as images of saplings being prepared for a reforesting project (they are in fact marijuana plants, a crop often cultivated by Hmong immigrants in California). Many of the portraits occupy an in-between space: the subject is sitting for a third party, for a different photographer or intention, captured by Her, for her purposes. One pores over the details in the background: for clues as to where these photos were taken; as to what is natural and what is illusion; and as to how the two combine in the same space.

My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions by Pao Houa Her. Aperture, $60 / £50 (softcover)

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