Seeing Pao Houa Her’s solo exhibition “My Grandfather Turned Into a Tiger” is like awakening in the middle of a dream and trying to tell it to someone, but it’s all hazy and none of it seems to flow in a linear way.
The show, on display through April 7 at Midway Contemporary Art, offers a shimmery array of black and white, color and lenticular photos (which give the illusion of three dimensions) taken in the Twin Cities and Laos. Many of the images show people posed in front of backdrops, or dressed in costumes, a consistent theme in Her’s photography and in Hmong communities.
Conceived as an installation, the exhibition draws its title from family lore about the death of Her’s grandfather’s during the Vietnam War. According to legend, Her’s mourning grandmother told the universe about their life together, and the following morning she discovered a dead boar on her doorstep. People in the community said the animal had been left by a tiger that was haunting the village.
This shapeshifting ability to move between animal and human form — something that writer Ursula K. Le Guin plays with in her book “A Wizard of Earthsea,” when the main character Ged becomes a hawk — becomes the basis for Her’s play with mythology and illusion.
Roaming through the exhibition, I immediately felt drawn to the eye of a tiger in one of the lenticular photos — shiny, hologram-like. I took out my phone and slowly walked toward it, recording a short video zooming into the tiger’s eye, which I posted to Snapchat.
Initially, the seemingly random arrangement of the photographs on the four walls had felt confusing. But as I drifted into the eye of the tiger and then began walking around the room using that as a starting point, I felt a sense of dreaminess. It suddenly felt odd that the checklist of works in the show begins at the back-door entrance. Why not begin at the tiger, the real life force behind the power of this show?
The first Hmong-American woman to graduate from Yale’s MFA program, Her is a refugee from Laos who came to the United States with her family at age 4. She blends straightforward documentary-style photography with a sense of wonderment that heightens the illusory element of this exhibition.
A photo of ancient large stone jars used at burial sites feels just as important as a glittering array of pink flowers, a diptych portrait of a woman nestled in a jungle setting, or a photo of two red chairs nestled next to each other under a picture of a waterfall cast in faded blue from an office that probably hasn’t been updated since 1977.
There are also portraits of younger men in natural settings. “Guy Cousin in Thailand” is pictured inside a giant wire heart decorated with pink flowers, his back turned away from a hillside. “Brian in the Summer” is lying on the grass with stalks of purple flowers behind him.
There’s a self-aware softening of masculinity in these pictures, while Her uses flowers in kitschy ways — yet I also thought of her previous show, “My Mother’s Flowers,” which employed the flower as a symbol for the search for a better life by Hmong women.
Nature winds its way through this show beyond the floral. There are caves and fires and a group of guys taking a selfie (or “usie”) together somewhere in rural Laos. As in a dream, you don’t know where this story ends or begins, but you can feel a narrative rising. All you have to do is not wake up, and just keep dreaming.