Tommy Kha, “Constellations (XVIII), Whitehaven, Memphis,” 2019, pigment print, 21 ⅝ x 27 in.

Artist Tommy Kha Captures the Restless Sleep of Immigrants

In this New York gallery solo show, the photographer turns his camera on the South's Asian diaspora

Tommy Kha, “Constellations (XVIII), Whitehaven, Memphis,” 2019, pigment print, 21 ⅝ x 27 in.

Words by Jenny Wu

Tommy Kha’s photographs of the Asian diaspora in the American South have been making waves. They recently earned the Memphis-born, New York City-based artist the Aperture & Baxter St Next Step Award, which culminated in the publication of a major monograph and Ghost Bites, a solo show at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York.

The photographs in the bright, narrow lower Manhattan gallery space exude a quality of uneasy repose. The most prominent works in the show are framed pigment prints and vinyl prints the size of road maps depicting domestic spaces with a cast of elderly sitters. In Quarter Self-Portrait (Gran Sleeping), Arlington, TN (2019), an elderly woman in a blue sweatshirt dozes beneath a fleece blanket, her arms crossed as if to say, “Do not disturb.” In Constellations (XVIII), Whitehaven, Memphis (2019), Kha’s mother, May, is dressed in a citrus-hued button-down and blue jeans and seated on the edge of a bed with mismatched comforters, like she’s about to lie down for a rest. Like Gran, May Kha is in bed in her day clothes. In one hand, she holds the shutter release, and with the other she grips the wooden bed frame. As she frowns at the camera, a photorealistic mask of her son’s face (more on that later) lurks behind her window curtain.

Tommy Kha, “Quarter Self-Portrait (Gran Sleeping), Arlington, TN,” 2019, pigment print, 36 x 45 in.

Kha’s mother immigrated to Memphis in 1983, five years before his birth, at a time when the city’s population was less than one percent Asian. Coming of age in Tennessee, as Kha did, can be daunting—I should know. I grew up on the opposite end of the state, with Chinese parents who weren’t keen on assimilating (read: going to church). With few Mandarin speakers in town and the nearest Asian grocery store a 30-minute drive away, my parents spent their free time shutting out their immediate surroundings: they watched DVDs, made international phone calls, and, of course, napped. Like Kha’s grandmother, my parents closed their eyes to the world, which seemed at times preferable to battling its relentless slog of language barriers, microaggressions, and neighborly surveillance. Supine beneath a thin sheet, sleepers enact a silent refusal. When I look at the photographs in Ghost Bites, I hear an electric fan, sense a draft from an open window, and feel an equal mix of kinship and melancholy.

Tommy Kha, “Article,” 2022, dye sublimation on fleece, 60 x 80 in.

Lloyd McCullough

The motif of sleep is deftly threaded through the exhibit. A dyed fleece blanket, titled Article (2022), is displayed on the gallery floor. Like a dream, it features a chaotic montage of everyday objects, including newspapers, flowers, a mahjong table, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and a Royal Dansk cookie tin, which, in my household, was used to store bric-a-brac in the wardrobe. Separated from its function, the blanket sits like a portal in the floor. The image is uncanny, as in the German unheimlich: unhomelike. Like a stranger in a strange land, Article is grounded, yet not quite at home in its surroundings. It makes sense as a natural extension of the photographic works on the wall and nonetheless reads as an anomaly in the space.

Tommy Kha, “Stations (Auntie’s Kitchen God), Arlington – II,” 2021, digital c-type print.

At waist-level on three walls of the exhibit runs an artery of small-scale photographs. This body of work, titled Stations (2012-23), is a series of intimate and luminous hand-sized color prints depicting, in reds, browns, and oranges, ancestral altars found around the United States. Icons of diaspora, these altars are often weathered and worn, exposed as they are to foot traffic and cooking fumes. They are at once spiritual and quotidian, ubiquitous enough to be overlooked when they’re not exoticized. The word “stations” evokes rest and reprieve—from malevolence, from America—in a spot similar to one’s bed or one’s dreams. In the gallery, the proliferation of altars seems to suggest that Kha’s mother and grandmother have ancestors watching over them as they sleep.

Tommy Kha, “Stations (Kitchen God),” 2015, digital c-type print.

Despite the presence of benevolent forces, there is still tension in the exhibit. In Quarter Self-Portrait (Gran Sleeping), Arlington, TN, although Gran is resting, her brows are furrowed, and her body is not fully relaxed. This uneasiness is insinuated in the exhibition title. Ghost bites, or ma cắn, are bruises and scratches that appear on the body seemingly out of nowhere. Do they form when we’re asleep? Or is sleep a salve that heals them—these wounds received simply from moving around in the waking world? In Take 18 (XVIII), Cordova, Tennessee (2021), Kha’s grandmother, this time sporting white cropped hair, sleeps with two eyes open, as if to ward off danger.

Tommy Kha, “Take XVIII, Cordova, Tennessee,” 2021, vinyl (UV print), 36 x 45 in.

This image of a vigilant sleeper is made using an uncanny mask of Kha’s own face. The artist often photographs family, friends, and strangers wearing the mask, a practice that has allowed him to humorously insert his Asianness and queerness into places from which, historically, he would have been excluded. Wearing a blank expression, the Tommy Kha mask stares at the viewer, or, in this case, at the ceiling, as if in a trance. The theatricality suggests an intensity of emotion lingering beneath the surface and that a nap is more than a mere escape from reality. In fact, Kha’s dreamy photographs turn sleep into a fully fledged form of expression.

Published on March 15, 2023

Words by Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu is a writer with work in ArtforumArt in AmericaBOMBNew York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post. She is currently serving as a 2021-23 Tulsa Artist Fellow to complete her first book-length work of fiction.