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What happens when an artist, a photograph, and an Elvis fan clash in an airport? No, it’s not a setup to a joke; in fact, far from it. But it is the absurd setting for a real story that took place in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this year.
It started on Feb. 15, 2022, when a new terminal was inaugurated at the Memphis International Airport. To mark the opening, the UrbanArt Commission exhibited a curated collection of works by 61 Memphis-based or Memphis-affiliated artists. Among them was Tommy Kha, a world-renowned Chinese and Vietnamese American queer artist who was born and raised in Memphis, just minutes away from Elvis’ home, Graceland.
A Tribute to Elvis and Identity
The photo Kha submitted for display at the airport was titled Constellations VIII/Golden Fields, and it includes a cardboard cutout of Kha dressed in an Elvis-style jumpsuit inside a cramped, office-type room with vivid blue chairs and walls.
As a queer Asian American southerner, Kha became intrigued by what he calls the “transcendence” of the performance art and parodies of Elvis tribute artists, aka Elvis impersonators. Now living in New York City, Kha still uses his photography to express the complexity of Southern and racial identities.
The UAC and the airport vetted and accepted his photo, and in February, it appeared on the walls of the new terminal as part of the curated exhibit. This story should have ended there, with travelers admiring the creativity of one of Memphis’ finest artists.
But then the Elvis fans showed up.
In early March, Jon Daly, an avid Elvis fan and owner of an Elvis tourism store, was traveling through the new terminal when he shared an image of Kha’s photo on Facebook with the caption, “What a joke.”
Memphis has an undeniably complicated relationship with Elvis Presley. As one of its most famous citizens, Graceland and Elvis-themed entertainment remains a huge tourism draw for the city. Fans of all stripes, tribute artists included, crowd the streets of Memphis for Elvis Week in August, as well as the “King’s” birthday in January, and almost every time in between. And while those in the tourism industry, such as the airport, are eager to keep Elvis fans happy, not all Memphians feel the same.
Elvis: Theft and Erasure
Victoria Jones, founder and executive director of Tone, an organization that empowers Black artists and communities in Memphis, says “Elvis is so synonymous in my experience with erasure,” based on his reputation for stealing the style and substance of his music from Black musicians. Despite the plethora of tribute artists, when Kha recreates his version of Elvis, Jones reflects that “it’s still not White enough. We’re still erasing it.”
“Erased” is a good way to describe what happened to Kha’s work. As Daly’s post blew up on Facebook, commenters were outraged at what they called Kha’s “disrespectful” depiction of Elvis and called for the airport to take down the artwork. Some of the responses included disparaging remarks about Kha’s race, references to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and racist questions about whether “the Chinese bought the airport too?” Within days, the photograph was quietly removed.
On Monday, March 22, Kha shared a photo on Instagram of the blank wall where his photo should have been displayed. He said, “After some disturbing complaints about my work, it was decided, and without my knowledge, the pictures were removed. I’m the only artist they have removed.” He continued, “I’m quite disappointed as it was one of many artworks selected to hang in the new concourse—an honor that connected me to the place where I grew up…and the opportunity gave me hope that artists like myself could be represented.”
The response was swift. First online, and then in the press, people in Memphis and beyond were horrified that racism had led to the censorship of an artist in a public space. Eileen Townsend reported in the Memphis Flyer, “It is unclear what factors — potential calls from the mayor or Elvis Presley Enterprises, complaints on social media, news coverage, or internal discussion — inspired the decision, but by Tuesday evening, the Memphis airport issued a statement of their decision to reinstall the piece.” On March 23, the image was reinstalled.
Grappling With Racial Trauma
There has been a lot of blame all around to explain what happened to Kha’s art. Lauren Kennedy, executive director of UAC, says more education is needed to help large institutions understand the significance of removing artwork. “It’s a big statement,” she says, “and to make that decision so soon after it had been installed and we were all celebrating was jarring.” The Memphis airport has maintained to the press that it was trying to mitigate both controversy and harm, and that it never meant to pacify racists. Airport officials said to the Memphis Flyer, “In hindsight we realize there was a bigger impact than we intended. We are not art people. We are airport people.”
Jones says part of the problem stems from large corporations and public systems that crave racial representation and engage in what is sometimes called “virtue signaling,” without real care for the artists themselves. “Stop inviting us into your space if it’s not safe for us,” she says. “You don’t get to ask creatives and storytellers to share their story, especially if they’re coming from marginalized communities, and then pick apart which parts you want to share.”
Kha confirms that when intentional systems are not in place to protect artists of color, harm is easily done, regardless of intent. He says, “It’s f–ng traumatizing for your work to be removed. It took me two months since the beginning of March when it happened to even deal with it.” Even with the artwork back on display at the airport, it doesn’t feel like he’s “won.”
“Definitely to Tommy’s credit…he’s been really consistent to say, ‘How can I use this opportunity to highlight other artists or support conversation in a way that’s helpful for other artists?’” says Kennedy. Although shy of the limelight and recovering from his trauma, Kha is still determined use his platform as a well-known artist to further conversations about representation in art. To do that, he needed to return to Memphis.
“Flying into the Memphis airport feels like running into your ex,” he joked when describing his first trip back for a panel on May 18. Hosted by the Brooks Museum of Art in partnership with UAC, Kennedy says the purpose of the art panel was not to rehash Kha’s experience at the airport, but to empower artists and students to better understand how the industry works.
Protecting the Creativity of Artists of Color
Another way to empower artists of color is through education. In addition to being a photographer, Kha is an adjunct professor at several art schools in the New York area where he teaches, among other things, professional practice for artists. This includes lessons on creating and maintaining a professional portfolio and a curriculum vitae, writing an artist statement, and more. Kha says that such professional training is one of the biggest things missing from art school curricula and is critical to helping students of color survive in the art world.
Jones offers her own insight for empowering diverse communities of artists. “The next part of the journey is ownership,” she says. “How do we not just exist in this space until someone tells us we can’t anymore?” What she means is that while it’s about property ownership, it’s also about the protection of creativity. “There’s something really incredible that happens when you’re safe enough to experiment,” she says of the Black artists who create and show work within her organization. “I’m just trying to figure out how to build out a hub for Black innovation.”
Months after the controversy over his photograph, Kha says he is stepping back. “I’m still doing my work, but I just need a break from working with Memphis organizations,” he says. As someone who has spent so much of his career exploring representation and erasure, it’s difficult for him to handle the visibility that this situation brought him. And it seems more important than ever for him, and all artists of color, to grapple with the question that he posed in his recent Art21 video: “How do we see ourselves when we are not represented?”
Jordan Arellano is a freelance journalist writing about the intersections of art, culture, and travel, and her work has been published in Edible Memphis and the Daily Memphian. She has a Master's in International Development and is interested in how art and justice intersect. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and can be reached at [email protected]