The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA) had removed an Elvis Presley–inspired self-portrait at the Memphis International Airport by artist Tommy Kha because of backlash from Elvis Presley fans, but the piece is now back up following an outcry on social media. The Commercial Appeal reports the piece was installed in a newly reopened concourse in mid-February, but airport administrators removed it this week, citing unspecified negative commentary from fans.
On Tuesday night, Fox 13 Memphis reported that the work was being reinstalled at the airport amid renewed backlash. “We apologize to Tommy for the effect that this ordeal has had on him,” Scott Brockman, President & CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority said in a statement to Fox 13. The statement reads in full:
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.
Kha initially reacted to the news in an Instagram post on Monday (March 21). “After some disturbing complaints about my work, it was decided, and without my knowledge, the pictures were removed. I’m the only artist they have removed,” he wrote.
In Kha’s photographic piece, he’s dressed in a jumpsuit that recalls Aloha From Hawaii–era Presley stands in a room filled with kitchen and office wares. Kha and the Memphis UrbanArt Commission, which helped facilitate the airport’s purchase of Kha’s work, denounced the removal. According to a statement from the UAC, Kha, who grew up near Graceland in the neighborhood of Whitehaven in Memphis, “has spent years doing documentary work about Elvis tribute artists/impersonators, and considers himself a part of that community.”
Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, explained the decision in an initial statement, saying that the MSCAA was “open to the possibility of commissioning new artwork” by Kha. “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 wrote. “As a result, the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best path forward.”