Born and raised in the Whitehaven neighborhood of Memphis, photographer Tommy Kha recites, “I always return to Memphis. Memphis is that kind of nexus point between mythology and history, sentimentality and memory. It’s something to be misremembered in a way. Much of my work and my family’s history is just that, it’s bits and pieces.”
Portraying everything from the pop culture iconography and generational revere of Elvis via young and old tribute artists, along with documenting his Chinese family and their domestic existence in the American South, Tommy Kha’s photography analyzes the multifaceted ways one can be seen. Coupled with growing up as a first-generation immigrant son in an environment that prodded and poked at his roots, Kha speaks on the pain and grief of his family’s departure from Vietnam via the portrait series titled Soft Murders (软谋杀). In staged images, Kha’s family members don solemn facial expressions while performing everyday tasks. The weight of the locational disconnect along with the need to merge into a new landscape and home is palpable. The depicted domestic scenes are filled with objects tied to tradition and the family’s heritage.
As is the case of many immigrant communities, the ability to be seen and portrayed is considered a privilege. Dissecting the invisibility of his own ancestors and those of Asian American communities in American photography, Kha poses the following: “How do we see ourselves when we are not represented? […] What is the best way to arrive at ourselves through photography?”
This film is part of Burnaway’s partnership with Art21, an organization that produces award-winning documentary films about the world’s most groundbreaking contemporary artists. The collaboration intends to deepen an understanding of visual art that hails from the South today.
MengCheng Collective’s final potluck-exhibition fed each of their goals for their community, for Memphis, and for themselves as artists. They’re proud that they encouraged each other to rest while working long hours in their studios. They are proud of what they taught Memphians about Asian Americans who tilled this land before they grew up here. And they should be proud of the social practice of “intergenerational dialogue, communal healing, and empowerment” that has illuminated the ties that connect them to their community.
She and I were connected during her visit because An-My wanted to learn more about the Vietnamese American community in Southeast Louisiana. I moved to Bvlbancha in 2015 to conduct research for my dissertation through learning from Vietnamese American fisherfolk about the environmental harm and structural exclusion they respond to in the Mississippi Delta.