Tommy Kha

by Johanna Fateman

Tommy Kha, Má

The New Yorker


The complicated bond between a son and his mother is unsentimentally depicted in this Memphis-born photographer’s ongoing collaborative series “Má,” which he began a decade ago. (The title means “Mom” in Vietnamese.) Judging by this concise exhibition of six color pictures, made between 2015 and 2021, the pair has found a winning approach, merging deadpan absurdism and formal acuity. In the striking “May (Betwixt),” from 2015, Kha’s mother, May, appears in a hallway, a small figure in blue reclining on an orange carpet; only her head, nestled on one arm, and her shoulders are visible, emerging from a doorway. “May (A Costume Drama)”, from 2019, shows the artist and his mother together, in a living room, wearing serious expressions and what appear to be moisturizing facial sheet masks. An additional layer—drawn-on eyebrows, and a mustache on Kha that evokes yellowface caricature—fills this intimate, interior scene with acid commentary. Kha’s project poses interesting questions about power dynamics, which are as endemic to families as they are to the medium of photography; it’s telling that, in this image, it’s the stern May who controls the camera’s shutter release, conferring a certain authority.