The Memphis Airport Is Facing Allegations of Censorship After It Removed an Asian American Artist’s Portrait of Himself as Elvis

The airport said it removed the work in response to "negative feedback from Elvis fans."

Tommy Kha's Constellations VIII (2017) and Golden Fields (2013) at the Memphis International Airport. Courtesy of the artist via Twitter.

A public artwork by Asian American photographer Tommy Kha has been unceremoniously removed from the Memphis International Airport in response to complaints from visitors. 

The artwork, a performative self-portrait, depicts the artist dressed as Memphis icon Elvis Presley. Commissioned by the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA), it was installed in the facility’s new B concourse in February.

But this week, Kha—who was born in Memphis and has long had an interest in the iconography of Elvis—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, social media users speculated that the “disturbing complaints” related to Kha’s work had to do with the artist’s Asian American identity. “I’ve taken pride that [Kha] makes art on a national stage representing the unique view of Asians in the American South,” said one Twitter user. “Removing his work like this is hurtful.”

Representatives from the MSCAA did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment, but in a statement shared with local news outlet ABC24, the organization’s president and CEO Scott Brockman said that the Airport Authority has “received a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans” in response to Kha’s artwork. 

“While we understand that the artist created the piece as a tribute to Elvis, the public reaction has been strong, leading us to revisit that original goal of avoiding the depiction of public figures in our art collection,” Brockman continued. “As a result, the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best path forward.” 

The executive acknowledged that “there were a small number of comments that included language that referred to Mr Kha’s race,” which he called “completely unacceptable.” He said those comments did not “form the basis” of the authority’s decision. 

Urban Art Commission, an independent public art non-profit based in Memphis that recommended Kha’s artwork and others for the airport’s newly established art collection, issued a statement yesterday condemning the work’s removal.  

“We worked very intentionally with the airport authority and selection committee to curate an art program that speaks to a diverse and authentic creative community representative of Memphis,” the statement read. “We are opposed to Tommy Kha’s installation being removed from display, especially considering the openly racist comments made online in the development of this situation.” 

The statement noted that the non-profit’s leaders have been in contact with MSCAA about re-installing the work.

“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,” Kha went on in his post. “While I believe people are free to speak their minds, I do not agree that the removal was the right solution.”

The artist did not immediately return an email from Artnet News.

Earlier today, an online petition was started demanding that Kha’s artwork be returned to the airport wall.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.