Tommy Kha, "Constellations (VIII)/Golden Fields" (2013) (© Tommy Kha; courtesy the artist and Higher Pictures Generation)

Yesterday, March 23, Memphis International Airport reinstalled a work by artist Tommy Kha depicting an Asian Elvis after airport officials had removed it earlier this week, prompting accusations of censorship.

Titled “Constellations VIII/Golden Fields” (2013), the photograph is a self-portrait of the artist, who is Chinese American, dressed in an Elvis suit. The airport took the work down after it “received a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans,” according to a statement from President and CEO of Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Scott Brockman that was shared with Hyperallergic.

“Constellations VIII/Golden Field” was installed in the airport’s new concourse alongside over 40 other works by Memphis-affiliated artists, a collection that Memphis’s UrbanArt Commission worked to curate.

Kha was notified by the airport that the work was receiving negative responses online before it was removed and asked if he would consider commissioning a different piece. However, he was not notified that the piece would be taken down. 

“I’m not really sure what exactly happened,” Kha told Hyperallergic. “I got a heads up two weeks ago that there were some internet rumblings going on.” Kha says that he never received direct negativity online, besides one Instagram post in which he was tagged that criticized his representation of Elvis.

“Among the complaints, there were a small number of comments that included language that referred to Mr. Kha’s race, and such comments are completely unacceptable,” read the airport president’s official statement. “The Airport Authority does not support those comments nor does it form the basis for the Authority’s decision regarding the piece.”

However, after outrage erupted on social media and local and national media outlets published stories on the incident, the airport decided to reinstall the work yesterday.

“After the last 48 hours, there’s definitely a vibrant community,” Kha said. “I did not expect that amount of support and phone calls from friends I haven’t talked to. There is a strong support system — that’s what I think Memphis is. It’s its people — its community — when it’s at its best.” The UrbanArt Commission publicly expressed its solidarity with Kha.

“Over the past 24 hours, we have heard from many in our community regarding the temporary removal of Tommy Kha’s artwork in the new concourse,” President Brockman said in a statement. “We apologize to Tommy for the effect that this ordeal has had on him.”

Kha grew up in the Memphis neighborhood of Whitehaven, just a few minutes from Graceland, the mansion owned by Elvis that receives over half a million visitors a year.

“I had this really outside view of Elvis throughout my life, as something that was just there,” Kha said. 

Elvis, a Memphis icon equally famous for being a pop culture fixture as for his music, has been tackled in high-profile art before: Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis” (1963) and “Triple Elvis” (1963), both based on a still from the 1960 film Flaming Star, are two well-known examples. 

“As much as I love Elvis, I love the Elvis community, I don’t love that sentiment where it erases community contributions,” Kha said. “There are so many important people and everyday people who are important who have contributed to the economics and the identity of Memphis, and I think it’s really fucked up to think that one person did all of that.”

“I’m not arguing he didn’t. I think we owe a lot to the people who stayed and the people who continued to live in Memphis to make it what it is today,” Kha added.

“There is something going on I think that needs to be addressed — how easily my work was removed — I think it’s just one small part of a larger thing that’s going on, which is the mixed message of city leadership and those who are in charge of what art can and cannot be, if it can hang on the wall,” he continued. “Art is for everyone, like Elvis.”

Kha told Hyperallergic he wants to shift the focus forward. 

“I didn’t want this attention, I literally tried to avoid being in this situation,” said Kha, adding that his Elvis work was not his first choice for the commission. “Now that we’re here, I think there can be some great learning opportunities.”

Kha told Hyperallergic he wants to hold public panels or workshops to help other artists facing similar predicaments. 

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.