MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tommy Kha, an Asian-American artist from Memphis, couldn't believe his art was being displayed at the Memphis International Airport's new Concourse B in February.
"Term[inal]s of endearment, still kinda stunned to be part of this collection...alongside many friends," Kha said in an Instagram post February 16.
The piece, a tribute to Elvis Presley, was recommended for display at the airport by a committee led by the Urban Art Commission. The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA) said they wanted to be intentional in showcasing local artists, diversity and inclusion in their art program.
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Just over a month later, however, the tribute to Elvis came down, after what Kha described as "disturbing" comments against his artwork.
"After some disturbing complaints about my work, it was decided, and without my knowledge, the pictures were removed," Kha said in the Instagram post. "I'm the only artist they have removed."
Many of Kha's supporters took to social media in defense of the piece, some calling the removal an example of Asian-American hate.
What the airport is saying
When asked about the reasoning behind the removal of the piece, MSCAA President and CEO Scott Brockman released a statement acknowledging there were a "small number" of complaints that referred to Kha's race, but they were "completely unacceptable" and did not factor into the decision to remove it.
"When the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display artwork that did not include public figures or celebrities," Brockman said in his statement. "Our selection committee made an exception in the case of Tommy Kha’s piece and recommended its purchase."
After receiving "a lot of negative feedback" from Elvis fans, Brockman said the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece, "while we determine our best path forward."
Brockman said the airport is "open to the possibility" of commissioning new artwork by Kha to replace the piece.
"While I believe people are free to speak their minds, I do not agree that the removal was the right solution," Kha said. "For many years, I have created work that explores my own experiences of becoming an artist in the South."
Urban Art Commission's reaction
The Memphis Urban Art Commission, who recommended the piece for selection, said in an Instagram post that they are against removing the piece.
"Airport leadership has chosen to remove an artwork from a Memphis artist, for reasons that we adamantly disagree with," UAC said in their post. "UAC is in contact with the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority and advocates for the artwork to be reinstalled."
"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," UAC said.
A spokesperson for MSCAA said they have not made any final determinations as to the restoration of Kha's piece.
MSCAA President and CEO Scott Brockman's full statement below:
Recently, the Airport Authority has received a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans about one of the art pieces that was purchased and installed in our recently modernized concourse. When the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display artwork that did not include public figures or celebrities. Our selection committee made an exception in the case of Tommy Kha’s piece and recommended its purchase. This was the only piece in the art collection that depicted a celebrity or public figure. 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. As a result, the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best path forward.
We are open to the possibility of commissioning new artwork by Tommy Kha to replace his previous piece.
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. The Airport Authority does not support those comments nor does it form the basis for the Authority’s decision regarding the piece. MSCAA has been very intentional to emphasize local artists, diversity, and inclusion with this art program, and we will continue to do so.