What makes a good self-portrait? Is it a time when we are at our best? A free kick? For photographer Tommy Kha, portraiture, and self-portraiture in particular, are ongoing explorations of a person’s identity, both individually and as part of a collective.

The Memphis-born artist, who was recently awarded the 2021 Next Step Prize for Photography, creates work that reflects his family’s history as Chinese-American immigrants who found asylum in the American South , and her personal story growing up and feeling out of place in this community.

One of Kha’s most poignant series is called “Soft Murder”: the title evokes Susan Sontag’s notion of the camera as “a sublimation of the gun”, meaning that “to photograph someone is a subliminal experience. murder-a sweet murder.Kha’s images, however, read not as violent, but as quirky, warm and intimate.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, Kha is at work in his hometown of Memphis, setting up theatrical scenes for still shots that recreate aspects of his childhood. In one, Kha dons a black plastic trash bag and a paper mask, the same costume he and his neighborhood friends wore to play Batman. In another clip, Kha explains, “I started chasing Elvis tribute artists, which is the politically correct term for Elvis impersonators. It’s beyond that kind of impersonation and imitation, it becomes transcendent.”

Still from the movie “New York Close Up” “Tommy Kha’s Bits & Pieces”. © Art21, Inc. 2022.

The images are humorous and tender, with the adults playing make-believe. But there is an undercurrent of something darker, which runs through all of Kha’s work. “Memphis is just like that kind of connection point between mythology and history, and sentimentality and memory,” the artist says, “and it’s something that’s kind of misremembered.

The disconnect between generations, communities and individuals is another theme in Kha’s art. His family is Chinese, but his mother fled Saigon and he recognizes that the trauma runs deep in their immigrant community.

Hearing my grandmother scream for no reason in the middle of the night because a firework was set off, or the news of the Oklahoma City bombing, is something very familiar to them,” he said. he declared to Art21. For Kha, the way to approach these disparate experiences is through representation.

“HHow do we see ourselves when we are not represented? Kha wonders. “I think it’s an ongoing performance…constantly searching, where do I fit into the picture?”

This is an episode of “Art on Video”, a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips from artists who are making the news. A new series of the flagship series of the Art21 association Art in the 21st century is now available on PBS. Watch all episodes of other series, like New York close up and Extended gameand discover the organization’s educational programs on Art21.org.


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