‘It’s Beyond Imitation’: Watch Artist Tommy Kha Explore the Contours of Identity by Photographing Elvis Impersonators in Memphis

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Tommy Kha’s Bits & Pieces.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

What makes a good self-portrait? Is it a moment when we look our best? A candid shot? For photographer Tommy Kha, portraiture, and self-portraiture in particular, are ongoing explorations of a person’s identity—both individually and as part of a collective.

The Memphis-born artist, who was recently awarded the 2021 Next Step Award for photography, creates work that reflects his family’s history as Chinese-American immigrants who found asylum in the American South, and his personal history growing up and feeling out of place in that community.

One of Kha’s most poignant series is called “Soft Murder”: The title evokes Susan Sontag’s notion of the camera as “a sublimation of the gun,” meaning that “to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—soft murder.” Kha’s images, however, read not as violent, but as quirky, warm, and intimate.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, Kha is at work in his hometown of Memphis, setting up theatrical scenes for still shots that re-create aspects of his childhood. In one, Kha dons a black plastic trash bag and paper mask, the same costume he and his neighborhood friends wore to play Batman. In another clip, Kha explains, “I started chasing Elvis tribute artists, which is the politically correct term for Elvis impersonators. It’s beyond this kind of impersonation and imitation—it becomes transcendent.”

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Tommy Kha’s Bits & Pieces.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Tommy Kha’s Bits & Pieces.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

The images are humorous and tender, grown-ups playing make-believe. But there is an undercurrent of something darker, which runs through all of Kha’s work. “Memphis is just like that kind of nexus point between mythology and history, and sentimentality and memory,” the artist says, “And it’s something to be misremembered in a way.”

The disconnect between generations, communities, and individuals is another theme in Kha’s art. His family is Chinese, but his mother fled Saigon, and he recognizes that trauma runs deep in their immigrant community.

Hearing my grandmother just scream for no reason in the middle of night because a firework got set off, or the news of the Oklahoma City bombing, is something that is very familiar imagery for them,” he tells Art21. For Kha, the way to address these disparate experiences is through representation.

“How do we see ourselves when we are not represented?” Kha asks himself. “I think it’s a continuous performance… to constantly search for, where do I stand in the picture?”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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