Brandy C. Topher interviews Chantal Zakari about her new work

You’ve collaborated with your husband in the past to make books (Lockdown Archive, They Came to Baghdad, The State of Ata), paintings (7 Turkish Artists), and commemorative ceramic plates (Shelter in Plates). But now you are making flags and pennants? Can you talk about your new work and the new banner you showed as part of “Relay”, the Kingston Gallery member’s show last January?
I draw from my own life experiences. I teach in an art school and in the last few years I noticed more and more packaged phrases at meetings: our “Global Imperative”, our “Sustainable Growth”, the “Competitive Landscape” we are in… The work is a reflection of the new vocabulary I have been exposed to in the past 5-10 years.

Innovation Catalyst, Embroidered 400 denier nylon burgee, 15”x21”, 2017

Was this language specific to your school? does it happen other places?

I’ve had conversations with colleagues who teach in other small liberal arts colleges. They’ve had similar experiences. One friend who is a Dean at a small college offered me another word: “SWOT”, for strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I hadn’t heard of it at our school, but the idea is the same. SWOT is a very structured planning method that is used in corporate planning and is now applied as a management concept to higher education. The work I am currently making is about the business language that has recently entered academia and specifically, the industry of art education.

SWOT, sketch for embroidered patch

How authentic and accurate is the business lingo you are referring to, where exactly did you get your words from?
I started with my own school’s Strategic Plan. Several appear in that document but all these phrases are from speeches and documents published by administrations in various small colleges and art schools. “Innovation Catalyst” for example often refers to a group of design-thinking coaches for a business organization. The idea that the “thinking” would be done by coaches is antithetical to art education where the “thinking” is usually done between the faculty and the students in a collaborative and creative way while in class during studio time.

What are gonfalons? burgees?
A gonfalon is a banner hanging from a crossbar. It’s a medieval Italian design, also used in Church ceremonies and, of course, in university ceremonies. It has a lot of drama to it. It’s a beautiful object.
A burgee is a triangular flag typically used in sailing. It’s shorter than a regular sports pennant. Burgees are very clearly classified through their symbols and colors. They also have an etiquette of display. So all these shapes have their own language which is studied under vexillography. Essentially what I am doing is use this visual language to talk about the pomp and circumstance of academia combined with the infiltration of the business lingo.

Who is moving with “Deliberate Haste”?
It’s an oxymoron. It sounded a lot more poetic when Obama said it when he first got elected and was in the process of putting together his Cabinet. When the President of a small art school starts using it in regards to the Strategic Plan… it’s overly dramatic.
…And that’s not a flag…
No, it’s going to be a wall relief. This particular design is from a tombstone in Westminster Abbey. I was in England for a month last summer and got to see a lot of shield designs. In fact, I think I was very influenced by coats of arms, especially the Medieval and Renaissance collection at the V&A, there are images I cannot get out of my mind, such as the Dacre Beasts holding flags.

Which is the first one you thought of making?
I was chair of the Curriculum Committee when our school was in the process of applying for accreditation. Most of this work was conceptualized before we became part of Tufts University, so it’s under our old administration. The term became a catch phrase for any initiative that the administration did not support, “according to accreditation we need to do it this way…” became the new parameters. The administrators had their own vision and they were shaping faculty decisions to fit that mold using the accreditation process as an excuse. We had an unorthodox system but it worked and an administrator who truly believed in the system should have been able to defend and justify it. The Accreditation board is a lot more creative and flexible than they were. So the real problem here was the administration’s lack of understanding art education and putting us through a series of bureaucratic processes.

You are a designer, you were educated as a designer, can you talk about your process?
Many of the elements on these flags are found on the internet and are clip art, they utilize cliché images to parallel the the words that are often devoid of meaning. “Innovation Catalyst”, for example, the burgee I showed in the January group show, includes an outline drawing of a classical Greek vase; an object that is very old, but also very innovative. The design of the burgee represents victory, achievement, power gained through innovation. And art education is and can be about all those ideas, but it is not only about success, often it reflects our weaknesses. There is a lot of failures in art making as the process is a private inner search. Art is a catalyst but not in the flashy sense a PR pamphlet represents it to be. So my designs reflects the irony between the words, the images and the actual process of learning and practicing art. My studio is my laptop, so I can work anywhere, I don’t have a studio in a typical sense. Mostly I work a few feet away from my husband’s computer space, but recently I moved to the couch in our living room. I love my computer, it is my best tool, and I love searching the web. The web is my resource, the place where I find images that reflects our culture, a mirror of our times. In that sense, it is very contemporary and of the moment. It reflects our common language. I am very interested in finding images that are basics to our understanding. Same with typography, I am mixing time periods, and am making a variety of cultural references and bring it all back to the connection between Medieval heraldry, the Church, military institutions, corporate businesses and how that language has moved to art education.

Will you be making the flags yourself?
I conceptualize and design them, I don’t make them. It is important to me that the objects are created within their authentic fabrication method. That was similar to the approach Mike and I took when we fabricated Shelter-in-Plates, they are real commemorative plates. I don’t want these flags to look like a copy of the original object, or have a trace of my hand, or be read as crafty. I want them to be the authentic object. It really is a pennant that you can hang on your wall. It’s not just an art object. The funny thing is that one of the best manufacturer of college banners is located 5 blocks away from my home, here in Watertown. I can walk there 2-3 times a day to see the production of my flag. Other pieces are produced long distance, the burgees were made in California, where there is a large sailboat culture. And the embroidered patch in China.

Production of a gonfalon at New England Flag & Banner, 2017

What’s the title of this body of work?

Working title is Strategic Planning. I keep going back and forth between Art Ed Inc and Strategic Planning, but I might come up with something else weeks before the show opens. Let me know if you have any suggestions…

Brandy C. Topher lives in the Bay area and is a performance artist who works under a pseudonym.
Chantal Zakari is a Professor of the Practice in the Graphic Arts Area at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Her show Strategic Planning opens at Kingston Gallery January 2018.

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