Artist Spotlight, Arts & Culture, Interview, Multimedia, Photography, Went There

The Watertown Arsenal and its Ghosts: Chantal Zakari’s “A Work in Progress”

Zakari looks at immigration and labor history in a crucible of change for latest multimedia exhbition


ED. NOTE: At the Boston Hassle, our main goal has always been to encourage our community to experience art and culture in person. However, given the confusing and sometimes misleading climate of the COVID-19 era, we can no longer fully endorse this message, nor can we personally attest to the safety protocols of any given establishment. For this reason, we urge our readers to take caution before visiting any institution we cover. We also urge folks to take proper precautions and do necessary research before attending a local gallery. Please see the italicized note at the end of this article for ways to view art and support local spaces in these times. We hope that soon we can recommend, unequivocally, that our readers experience the outside world to the fullest. Thanks — BH Art Team

Work in Progress Gallery

The Kingston Gallery, located at 450 Harrison in South Boston’s SoWa Open Market, is currently showcasing two art exhibitions — Margaret Hart’s “New Work” and Chantal Zakari’s “Work in Progress.” Chantal Zakari’s “A Work in Progress” is a multimedia exhibit that captures the poignant history of labor and transformation of the Watertown Arsenal in a nonlinear timeline of events.

Chantal Zakari is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and designer based in Watertown, MA. Zakari often explores themes of social issues in her work, and “Work in Progress” is no exception to that. To create a visual history of the Arsenal, her works employ graphic design and photography, with other mediums being plexiglass portraits, archival images, and printed fabric. The imagery of workers, bombs, explosions, parking lots, and construction sites suggests that there is a haunting quality to the space in addition to its utilitarian nature.

Before its current status as a shopping center, The Watertown Federal Arsenal was a manufacturer of war materials throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th century. It supplied weapons from the Civil War to WWII, and largely employed immigrants of various origins. In the present day, it is known as the Arsenal Yards.

When asked why she wanted to explore its archives for her current exhibition, Zakari explained that it was a matter of both convenience and fascination. With her interest in architecture that she finds “reflects the recent history of America,” the Arsenal has always been an epicenter of change that embodies American society. “It’s the change in labor, the change in architecture, the change in how we go from [The Federal Arsenal’s] beautiful architecture to mall strips, parking lots,” says Zakari. And because of its perpetual transformation, the space is a work in progress.

“Labor” by Chantal Zakari

One of Zakari’s pieces on display is “Labor,” where the complex nature of what the Arsenal reinforced in society is highlighted. Portraits of laborers as they work the machinery are displayed uniformly in frames. In their time working, they were able to enjoy social mobility into the middle class as a result of the work provided by the Arsenal, but their work would later produce brutal destruction.

“On one hand, [working at] the Arsenal was a good job,” explains Zakari. “Immigrants like me would get a job here, a working class job, and would move into the middle class…but on the other hand, you’re making bombs.” As the Arsenal now stands as a shopping center, its identity remains as a hub of labor and an embodiment of the functions of the American working class. However, Zakari makes the point that its retail workers of today may not experience the same kind of upward mobility its past laborers have.

The exhibition is concluded by a separate section in the Center Gallery that displays the video installation entitled “About the Past.” Zakari describes this two-channel installation as a “poetic way of expressing what was going on,” where the 13 minute videos play with no beginning or ending. One projection plays various scenes of dance performed by duo Sofia Engelman and Em Papineau, evoking the ghostlike sense of labor at the Arsenal through emulating the motions of the workers that once occupied its space.

Concurrently, the other projection features clips from construction sites at the Arsenal that occasionally move to shots of soprano singer Ruth Harcovitz as she belts out WWII songs in front of various renovated buildings. The stillness of the sites are juxtaposed by the movement of the dancers, but both carry the thread of haunting and ephemeral nature that permeates Zakari’s works.

“About the Past” by Chantal Zakari

Beyond the exhibition, those interested in the Arsenal’s history are able to take a piece of it home with them. As Zakari describes herself as an artist that is “committed to taking [her] work outside of the gallery sphere,” she has developed a recreation of the Arsenal News that will be distributed at the Kingston Gallery, the Arsenal Mall, and various locations throughout Watertown. The Arsenal News was a publication for the community of its laborers that ran for 23 years. In Zakari’s interpretation of the paper, real headlines from past publications are layered with her re-envisioning of the events — encapsulating the nonlinear history of the Watertown Federal Arsenal, a motif that is present throughout the gallery.

“Arsenal News” by Chantal Zakari

Chantal Zakari’s “Work in Progress” at The Kingston Gallery will be open until December 6, 2020 from 12pm-5pm, from Wednesdays to Sundays at 450 Harrison Ave, No. 43 in Boston. Elements of this show can also be viewed  on Kingston’s Artsy page.

All photos by the author

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