Photo Credit: Local Memphis ABC 24

Note: The Airport Authority has now reversed its previous decision and announced that Tommy Kha’s work will be reinstalled at the airport. 

The Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority has brought down an avalanche of outrage on itself by taking down the work of Tommy Kha, a nationally known and celebrated Memphis talent, because some Elvis fans were upset by it.

The blasphemy was that the artist had the audacity to portray himself as Elvis.  And the fact that this Elvis was Asian produced some of the ugly anti-Asian racism that is all too frequent in recent years.   Rather than stand up for a Memphis talent, the Authority yielded to the venom and stupidity.

Mr. Kha lives in Memphis and Brooklyn, and his work has been shown in exhibitions across the United States.  He is a recipient of the Next Step Award, Foam Talent, Creator Labs Photo Fund, Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship finalist, and most recently Celebrate the Studio resident at International Studio and Curatorial Program. He was named one of 47 artists in the inaugural Silver List.

Mr. Kha graduated from Memphis College of Art and holds an MFA in Photography from Yale University.

His work which flows from his life in Whitehaven, minutes away from Graceland and his celebration of his hometown and the king of rock and roll.  His connections to Memphis should be honored, and instead, the Airport Authority has embarrassed itself – and Memphis.

So, now, the Airport Authority members and cranky Elvis fans are art critics? Apparently, the Airport Authority has as much art sense as Elvis did in interior decorating.

The irony of this episode in which the Authority shot itself in the foot is how many people wanted to censor Elvis’ art when he got started and now his fans want to censor a Memphis artist.  There’s also the irony of Elvis’ obsessive love of karate (where did it come from?).

The ultimate question: should fans who revere the Jungle Room really be setting artistic standards for Memphis?

Using the Airport Authority’s selectively applied policy, it should take down the gratuitous photos of its staff and board, messages from mayors that make us look so small town, etc.  It should embark on a campaign of purity to remove any art that shows music legends like Al Green and B. B. King.

This was a time to celebrate the Airport Authority’s leadership in recreating what was once a hub into a high-functioning point of Memphis pride.  However, in overreacting to some complaints about Mr. Kha’s portrayal of an Asian-American Elvis, the Airport Authority was busy looking backwards and will resurrect the media narrative of Memphis as a “backwater town.”

It’s not too late for the Airport Authority to look to a future that is vibrant and sophisticated and to reverse the damage it has caused to Memphis’ reputation.

By the way, if you want to see how Mr. Kha thinks thoughtfully about Memphis, here’s a must-watch short film: