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Elvis reimagined as an Asian American icon

<i>Tommy Kha</i><br/>In a photograph by Tommy Kha
Tommy Kha
Tommy Kha
In a photograph by Tommy Kha

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In a photograph by Tommy Kha, the artist, dressed as Elvis Presley in a bedazzled low-cut white suit, stares at the viewer from behind a table in a retro-looking bright teal kitchen. There’s a sense of the uncanny valley with his blank, unbreaking gaze, and the harsh light flattening his figure.

But there’s a good reason for this lack of depth — Kha is not actually present in the photograph. Instead it’s a cardboard cutout of a portrait of himself, propped up between the metal-edged table and blue leather chairs. The image was taken by chance — Kha was towing around the cutout of himself, titled “Me as Andy Kaufman as Elvis Minus the Singing,” when he was in a Miami prop rental studio; he saw the kitchen set and placed it there, finding the scene to be serendipitous.

“A lot of my work is in between staging and improvising,” he explained on a call from Brooklyn, New York, where he is based.

As a Chinese American artist who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, Kha’s work often ruminates on how queer Asian men have been represented in photographs. But he also picks apart how identity is crafted and performed, and whether or not the defining markers of a person can be substituted. He has spent many years taking self-portraits without being physically in the frame, replicating his face through cardboard images, 3D-printed sculptures, puzzles and masks which he places in front of the camera. Can printed copies of a person tell the viewer something about who they are? Can doppelgangers — for which he occasionally holds casting calls — do the same?

“How does one arrive (at) their own representation? I am searching for that answer from both sides of the camera,” he said in an interview with Aperture in 2019. “How do I arrive at myself?”

When Kha photographed himself as Presley (or more accurately, as the comedian Kaufman imitating Presley), he had already been photographing people who have spent years slipping the King of Rock & Roll’s identity on and off. He was drawn to the “tribute artists” — more commonly known as impersonators — for their kinship with his own practice.

“(They are) possessed in a way. And I kind of love that. (It’s) not like it’s ghosts or anything like that, but a way to invoke the past…through their performances,” he told CNN.

Unexpected controversy

Growing up just a five-minute drive to Graceland, Presley was an inescapable presence in Kha’s childhood. Now, each summer, Kha returns to Memphis for Elvis Week, where lookalikes flock to the city to compete in an annual competition. Kha hangs around the venues where they perform and drives around the city looking out for their telltale coiffed black hair.

“It’s not just simple copying. These folks learn choreographies and…train their voices,” he said. “It’s art to me.”

Kha has photographed a number of people who emulate Presley over the years, but in this portrait he offers himself as the American icon. It is currently on view at the Memphis International Airport, among the artworks of other Memphis-bred artists, though the airport temporarily removed the work in March following critical social media comments about the work, some of which were “openly racist,” according to a statement by the UrbanArt Commission, which facilitated the airport’s acquisitions for its collection. Amid backlash over its removal, the airport reinstalled the work three days later.

“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…and the opportunity gave me hope that artists like myself could be represented,” Kha posted on Instagram after its removal.
In a statement provided to CNN from March, the local airport authority’s CEO Scott Brockman maintained that the reason the airport removed the work was because they wished to avoid showing a celebrity or public figure in the collection in light of the “negative feedback.”

“There were a small number of comments that included language that referred to Mr. Kha’s race, and such comments are completely unacceptable,” Brockman said in the statement. “The Airport Authority does not support those comments nor does it form the basis for the Authority’s decision regarding the piece.”

Since the work was reinstalled, Kha is hoping to shift the focus into support for local artist communities. He has begun hosting a series of events with the Urban Art Commission; the first took place at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art about “the complexities of showing work within public and private spaces,” as he described in a recent Instagram post. He’ll host professional development workshops through his residency program in Memphis, Crosstown Arts later in the summer. This month, he finally had the opportunity to see the large-scale print in person when he returned back home to Memphis.

As he told CNN, “​​I’m hoping I can use this situation to turn it into something good.”

Top image: “Constellations VIII,” 2017

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