MEM removes artwork from the new terminal after the Memphis artist’s work sparked controversy

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – Controversy at Memphis International Airport. Just a month after a rebuilt Concourse B reopened, with dozens of new works of art by local artists on display, one of the images has been removed from the public eye.

Memphis International Airport worked with the UrbanArt Commission to select more than 40 contemporary works of art for the new terminal. A piece called Constellations VIII / Golden Fields by Tommy Kha, which depicts an Asian Elvis, has been removed from leading art lovers and the artist himself to wonder … why?

The airport’s $ 200 million Concourse B reopened on February 15 for a big party. And the local work of art, worth $ 1.5 million, received much praise for its wealth and diversity. But last week, Kha’s art was removed.

Airport President and CEO Scott Brockman issued the following statement to Action News 5:

“Recently, the airport authority has received a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans about one of the works of art purchased and installed in our newly modernized facility. When the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display works of art that did not include public Our selection committee made an exception in the case of Tommy Kha’s work and recommended the purchase. This was the only piece in the art collection that depicted a celebrity or public figure. Although we understand that the artist created the work as a tribute to Elvis, the public reaction has been strong, which has led us to revisit the original goal of avoiding the depiction of public figures in our art collection.As a result, the airport decided that it was best to temporarily remove the piece while deciding our best route forward.

We are open to the possibility of ordering new artwork by Tommy Kha to replace his previous work.

Among the complainants, there was a small number of comments that contained language that referred to Mr. Khas race, and such comments are completely unacceptable. The Danish Airport Authority does not support these remarks, nor does it form the basis for the Authority’s decision on the piece. The MSCAA has been very conscious of emphasizing local artists, diversity and inclusion with this art program, and we will continue to do so. “

Kha, who wrote on Instagram “a little surprised to be a part of the collection” when it debuted a month ago.

He shared another post on Monday in which he expressed his disappointment: “I’m quite disappointed. The opportunity gave me hope that artists like myself could be represented.”

Lauren Kennedy, CEO of the UrbanArt Commission, the non-profit that helped the airport cure this collection, issued a statement on social media:

UAC respects and values ​​Tommy Kha and his art, and was pleased to recommend him to be included in the Memphis International Airport collection. Tommy grew up in Whitehaven, has spent years making documentaries about Elvis tribute artists / imitators and considers himself part of that community. We worked very consciously with the airport authority and the selection committee to curate an art program that speaks to a diverse and authentic creative community representative for Memphis. The artwork was originally approved and is ultimately owned by the airport authority for exhibition on their property. We are opposed to Tommy Kha’s installation being removed from view, especially given the blatantly racist comments that have come online in the development of this situation. The airport management has chosen to remove a work of art from a Memphis artist for reasons on which we completely disagree. UAC is in contact with the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority and is in favor of the work of art being reinstalled. The UAC is committed to exploring the possibilities of helping protect artists in future situations where racism, homophobia and silence on artists’ voices discourage a meaningful dialogue. We will continue to work with our team, board, local artist community and clients to address processes in the selection, installation and protection of works in public spaces. “

The reaction on social media to the removal of the artwork was rapid:

“This is deeply outrageous,” Nicole Hughes tweeted. “Your art and voice are so necessary in the Memphis community.”

“This is anti-Asian hatred pure and simple,” wrote DShawn Richards.

And from Lurene Kelley: “Asians are a small population of Memphis. But here we are. Removing its work in this way is hurtful. It’s never too late to do the right Fly Memphis.”

When we contacted by phone Monday night, Tommy Kha told Action News 5:

“My intentions right now are to focus on preventing this from happening to other artists.”

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