Memphis Airport reinstalls art piece after backlash

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s a self-portrait — Tommy Kha, an Asian American artist, dressed as Memphis icon Elvis Presley.

The piece was commissioned by the airport for its new concourse B, but it was taken down.

“This one is getting particular attention because of the controversy,” said Anthony Lee, a local artist who has worked with the City of Memphis in the past.

He says the airport is now doing damage control after receiving complaints, including some racist comments about the art.

Kha is a Memphian. He grew up in Whitehaven down the road from Graceland and City of Memphis leaders say they support the portrayal.

“To be frankly honest, I thought the artwork was beautiful and interesting,” said Councilmember Chase Carlisle.

The Airport Authority released a statement saying when the airport created its arts program, it was not going to purchase artwork that showed public figures or celebrities. They made an exception for Kha’s piece. However, public reaction has been strong, so the piece was temporarily removed.

The UrbanArts Commission, which recommended Kha’s work, also released a statement saying, “We openly oppose Tommy Kha’s installation being removed from display, especially the openly racist comments made online in the development of this situation.”

Lee says he doesn’t believe this is a race issue but an Elvis issue.

Lee says Kha did his part as an artist and says art does not always please everybody.

“If the public doesn’t like it, he got paid for his work, you know,” said Lee.

Tuesday afternoon, the airport released a statement reinstalling the artwork. It said the following:

“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. The Airport Authority appreciates the support that the community has shown for Tommy and we have made the decision to reinstall the artwork. We apologize to Tommy for the effect that this ordeal has had on him. As stated yesterday, when the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display artwork that did not include public figures or celebrities but made an exception in this case. The Airport Authority will continue to emphasize local artists, diversity, and inclusion with this art program, and we will explore additional best practices to address how we handle complaints and public feedback about our artwork.” according to the Memphis Airport.

The artist shared a message of thanks on Twitter Tuesday evening: