An airport in Tennessee is reinstalling an art piece featuring an Asian man wearing an Elvis outfit after previously taking it down due to backlash from travelers.
The self-portrait, which shows Asian American artist Tommy Kha dressed as Elvis, was chosen by a committee led by Memphis’ Urban Art Commission to be displayed in a newly renovated section of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport.
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA) said they decided to remove the photo on Monday after they received a lot of “negative feedback” from Elvis fans. Some other travelers reportedly made anti-Asian comments about the piece on social media.
In an earlier statement, MSCAA President and CEO Scott Brockman said he found the “small number” of comments that mentioned Kha’s race “unacceptable” but denied they were the reason it was taken down.
“While we understand that the artist created the piece as a tribute to Elvis, the public reaction has been strong,” he explained. “As a result, the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best path forward.”
According to Kha, the Memphis-born and -based artist behind the piece, he was not notified of the removal.
“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 wrote as part of a Twitter thread. “While I believe people are free to speak their minds, I do not agree that the removal was the right solution.”
“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,” Brockman was quoted as saying. “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.”
An MSCAA representative confirmed that the piece will be reinstalled “as soon as possible,” but an exact timeline was not given.
The UrbanArt Commission, which immediately protested the removal of Kha’s work, took to Instagram to express appreciation for the piece being reinstalled.
“UAC appreciates everyone who has expressed their support and spoken up over the last several days, especially Tommy for his courage in navigating a hurtful and difficult situation,” the commission wrote. “We are still committed to working with our partners and artists to support a productive dialogue around this and how to guard against something like this happening in the future. UAC cares deeply about supporting artists and diverse communities, and believes that all of us deserve to feel welcome in Memphis.”
In two follow-up tweets, Kha thanked those who supported him and offered his time to talk about what happened in a public forum to “better serve the community.”
“FIRST I want to say thank you to everyone: friends, schoolmates, family, and supporters for coming out the last 24 hours—it is the definition of what Memphis is: the community,” Kha wrote. “I hope I somehow can continue to help elevate others.”