Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Chantal Zakari turns pennants into red flag

Chantal Zakari’s “Synergy”
Chantal Zakari’s “Synergy”

A friend who worked at a gargantuan corporation rankled at the word “thrive.” “Ugh,” she said, “my company uses that word all the time.” In a campaign to get employees and clients to thrive, the business had sucked the word dry.

In her tongue-in-cheek show “Strategic Planning” at Kingston Gallery, Chantal Zakari revels in the language of the business world. Corporate overuse of catch phrases doesn’t quite empty them of meaning, but it has made them as stale as months-old cereal.

Zakari, who is a professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, applies such bloated nomenclature to academic life, deploying terms such as “programmatic synergies” on perky pennants like the kind trumpeting a school’s name on a dorm room wall, and on resplendent gonfalons of the sort proudly carried in graduation processionals. 


In her sharp critique of universities adopting corporate management styles, Zakari blends “Go, team!” boosterism, the heraldic pageantry of academic rituals, and business lingo. The effect is disturbing and comic. “Funded Growth Through Debt” emblazons a gonfalon with fuchsia and copper stripes; the text arcs beneath a ball-jointed dancing model. “Huzzah!” it seems to say. “Student loans are the path to a better future!”

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A show catalog packaged as an artist’s book looks like a glossy annual report or university brochure, but it never quite finds its tone, wandering from satiric to weirdly ecclesiastical to surprisingly earnest. The essay accompanying “Funded Growth Through Debt,” for instance, cogently summarizes the thorny problem of student debt and offers possible approaches to lessening the burden. 

But the flags themselves, along with other paraphernalia, cleverly demonstrate how packaging at once brightens up and waters down potentially useful ideas.

Higher education faces major pressures today, including rising tuitions, competition from for-profit universities, and a right-wing distrust of education. Zakari exposes a raw nerve here, but next she might trade academic regalia for dark suits and military parades and take on Washington, where empty words and shiny pomp are lately at a premium. 


At Kingston Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 28. 617-423-4113,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@
. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.