Howdy! My name is Carmen, and I know very little about art. Last semester I was lucky enough to take a course at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and attend the Artist Talk Series that they host every semester. The art world can feel like a black box, but listening to artists describe their thought process and the meaning behind their work makes art more universally approachable. For this column, I invite you to join me as I learn about art through the SMFA artist talks.
This week, the SMFA hosted photographer Tommy Kha for an artist talk. Based in New York City and Memphis, Tenn., Kha produces work focused on queer and Asian identity. While speaking, his background in improv comedy shone as he wove a playful and engaging thread through all his different works and projects.
Kha’s pieces are all part of one long, ongoing body of work that reflects his own changing identity. Speaking to a room of young artists, this theme of an unplanned artistic journey strongly resonated with me.
Humorously relatable in their raw portrayal of even the most awkward moments, such as an unrequited kiss, Kha’s works embrace a youthful exuberance while breeching complex topics such as race, sexuality and identity. His eclectic body of work ranges from a colorful and striking 13-year project featuring photos of unrequited kisses with strangers to more earnest works featuring his own mother.
Speaking about the commonality between all his pieces, Kha said that he “chases ghosts,” both his own ghost and those of others with whom his life has intersected. Even without a proton pack, Kha pursues these ghosts with an infectiously joyful spirit and a deep desire to satisfy his curiosity with the world.
Often turning to himself as the subject, Kha often experiments with his own self-image in his series entitled “Façades.” Using masks of his own face as well as short clips of puzzles of his own image with changing pieces, he prompts questions about the boundary and composition of self.
Kha’s experimentation extends to how he chooses to present his work. Photos wrapped around corners and overlaid onto one another are common features in his gallery shows. He places great importance on how his pieces interact with one another, recognizing that nothing functions within a vacuum.
Listening to him speak brought a smile to my face while planting questions about race, culture, identity and sexuality in my mind. Kha artfully switches between lighthearted and sincere notions, using a sense of playfulness as the connective tissue for intricate social commentary.
Leaving his talk, I felt empowered to view life as both eccentric and consequential, knowing that the two are more interconnected than they are oppositional.