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Memphis Removed Work of Tommy Kha, Gay Asian Artist, From Airport

Art installation of Tommy Kha
Photo provided by Tommy Kha

The removal came after complaints over the nature of the artist's work. It has since been reinstalled.


Two weekends ago, the Memphis International Airport took down artwork by gay artist Tommy Kha that had been on display since January.

The pieces had been removed after complaints trickled in over the art, which shows Kha in an Elvis Presley costume and a Presley cutout.

Kha took to Instagram to thank his supporters in a post that explained the situation.

"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," Kha wrote in the original post. "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 (having grown up in Whitehaven, minutes away from Graceland), and the opportunity gave me hope that artists like myself could be represented. While I believe people are free to speak their minds, I do not agree that the removal was the right solution."

He added, "For many years, I have created work that explores my own experiences of becoming an artist in the South. I love Memphis still, and I love the countless contributions from many voices and people that have Memphis what it is to me: home."

The art on display at the airport was Kha's second submission. The first featured people kissing, but organizers decided against it.

The second submission contained two works. In one piece, Kha, in full Elvis gear, stands in a retro-style kitchen. Another piece shows a cutout of Elvis in gold sheets.

"I didn't think they were controversial," Kha told The Advocate on Tuesday before the removal decision was reversed. "I am not one of those artists that just ruffled feathers like that. I love my community. I love Elvis. I love the Elvis community."

He says he got a message from the UrbanArt Commission -- the organization behind facilitating the artwork at the airport -- and its representatives told him that there were negative comments online about his work.

In a Zoom meeting to discuss steps forward, Kha asked them if the pieces had been removed, and the airport representative confirmed they had been.

"I left the Zoom meeting and asked them to think about what artist protections would look like -- whether that means transparency or any way to prevent this from happening to other artists is now my goal," Kha said.

He added, "I'd like to have a conversation about this." He's open to how that would look -- maybe something in the form of a workshop or public forum.

As to why this whole art was removed in the first place, Kha said, "I assume it was racism." He came to this conclusion from viewing the comments but said that he wanted people to come to that conclusion for themselves.

Kha, who is from Memphis, is of Asian descent. He told The Advocate that while he loves Elvis, Memphis' identity is more than that.

"I think it's really disparaging to erase people's contributions to Memphis' totality, its own identity."

The airport authority said in a statement that it "appreciates the support that the community has shown for Tommy and we have made the decision to reinstall the artwork. We apologize to Tommy for the effect that this ordeal has had on him," according to local newspaper the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

UrbanArt Commission executive director Lauren Kennedy told the paper she was relieved the artwork had been put back up.

"I was also surprised that they were able to make that decision as quickly as they were," she said. "I believe it's the right decision to make. So, ultimately I'm really glad about that."

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