A public work of art by Asian-American photographer Tommy Kha has been ceremoniously removed from Memphis International Airport in response to complaints from visitors.
The artwork, a performative self-portrait, depicts the artist dressed as Memphis icon Elvis Presley. It was commissioned by the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA) and was installed in the facility’s new B-hall in February.
But this week, Kha – who was born in Memphis and has long had an interest in Elvis’ iconography – took to social media to note that the artwork was no longer on display. “After some disturbing complaints about my work,” the artist wrote“it was decided and without my knowledge the pictures were removed.”
Online, users on social media speculated that the “disturbing complaints” related to Kha’s work had to do with the artist’s Asian-American identity. “I have been proud of that [Kha] makes art on a national stage that represents the unique view of Asians in the American South, ” said a Twitter user. “Removing his work in this way is hurtful.”
MSCAA representatives did not immediately respond to Artnet News’ request for comment, but in a statement shared with local news media ABC24said the organization’s president and CEO Scott Brockman that the airport authority has “received a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans” in response to Kha’s art.
“While 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 portrayal of public figures in our art collection,” Brockman continued. “As a result, the airport decided it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best way forward.”
The director acknowledged that “there were a small number of comments that included language that referred to Mr Khas’ race,” which he called “completely unacceptable.” He said these comments did not “form the basis” of the authority’s decision.
The Urban Art Commission, an independent public art non-profit based in Memphis that recommended Khas works of art and others to the airport’s newly established art collectionissued one announcement yesterday condemned the removal of the work.
“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 statement read. “We are opposed to Tommy Kha’s installation being removed from view, especially given the blatantly racist comments coming online in the development of this situation.”
The statement noted that non-profit executives have been in contact with the MSCAA about reinstalling the plant.
“I’m quite disappointed as it was one of many works of art selected to hang in the new meeting room – an honor that attached me to the place where I grew up (after growing up in Whitehaven, a few minutes away from Graceland), and the opportunity provided I hope artists like myself could be represented, “Kha continued in his post.” Although I think people are free to say their opinion, I do not agree that the removal was the right solution. ”
The artist did not immediately return an email from Artnet News.
Earlier today, a online petition was started by demanding that Kha’s artwork be returned to the airport wall.
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