Memphis Commercial Appeal | Airport’s Elvis artwork controversy begs the question: Who decides what art can be?
By Corinne S. Kennedy/Memphis Commercial Appeal
After a Memphis artist’s picture was removed from Memphis International Airport due to complaints — and later reinstalled due to complaints — the artist and local arts community are trying to figure out why it happened and how to prevent similar events in the future.
The work by Tommy Kha features him, an Asian American man, dressed as Elvis. The work was one of about 60 pieces commissioned from artists from or connected to Memphis to adorn the renovated concourse.
Kha said removing the work sent mixed signals about a project that was meant to celebrate the spirit and diversity of Memphis.
The incident also cannot be removed from the wider, disturbing trend of increased violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, a continuation of prejudice that has existed since the founding of the republic, said Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Over the years it has taken many forms, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II to the detention of people from Southeast Asia and the Middle East after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mark said.
In addition to anti-Asian legislation and treatment by the federal government, discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans has been exercised extra-legally in the form of physical violence and murder.
“The thing that comes to my mind out of the legal legacy here is this idea that Asian Americans are not Americans,” he said. “That they’re viewed as perpetual foreigners.”
The U.S. is in a new wave of anti-Asian prejudice and violence, a combination of historic discrimination, the COVID-19 pandemic, strained relations with China on multiple fronts, and myriad other factors, including, recently, Chinese posture towards the Russian war in Ukraine, Mark said.
“When this piece of art went up, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said.