How Does Art Change Our Perceptions of COVID-19?

Lessons from a Pandemic: The way the coronavirus is illustrated can influence how we feel about it, says a Tufts art professor
In the video above, Chantal Zakari, professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, says that how the coronavirus is illustrated can convey different messages. Video: Jenna Schad
August 12, 2020

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“Lessons from a Pandemic” is an occasional video series featuring Tufts faculty offering perspectives on COVID-19.

Chantal Zakari, a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts whose work focuses on contemporary social issues and graphic arts, was intrigued by the imagery created during the COVID-19 pandemic—not just visuals of the virus itself, but images that convey messages about the pandemic.

In August she published her artist’s book Drop Dead Gorgeous filled with those images, which she gleaned, she said, from all over. “ If it’s already created, there is no reason for me to create it,” Zakari said.

The result, the Boston Globe said, tells “a story through the sumptuous imagery of illustrations: the virus in high-keyed colors invading Earth and attacking humans; people outfitted in hazmat suits fighting back. It’s rip-roaring action.”

“As COVID-19 affects every nation, some images in the book are paired with headlines published in a variety of languages,” said Zakari. “This iconic imagery is informed by a worldwide visual lexicon specific to this moment.”

Some of the images she collected are focused on editorial use. “I noticed that an illustration may be made in China and could appear in an article in Brazil or in Italy, and the context could change,” Zakari said. “That is, it could have been created as an image to rally the Chinese to conquer the virus, but in another article it could represent criticism of Chinese fighting the virus—the meaning and the context of the same image can be presented differently. In essence, the images are hollow of any meaning.”

Zakari said she “originally fell in love with the genre of artist books because it is a democratic medium; you don’t have to have a gallery space to distribute your work or to have your work be seen. You can simply publish a book and put it out there and for a very affordable price, then it’s accessible to many people.”

She trained as a graphic designer and has created artist’s books and digital narratives for more than two decades. Her work is in the collection of Yale University, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Getty Research Institute Library.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu