Q&A with Mona Chalabi on her first solo exhibition, ‘Photographs by Numbers’

Aid, Mona Chalabi


CAF: Congratulations on your first exhibition. What was the process was like beforehand, what was it like to get it going. Were you nervous this was your first one?
MC: Well, it was a little bit difficult…basically I’d gone to Iraq and taken lots of pictures, I came back here and pitched an idea for an exhibition called ‘El-Qafas’ (The Cage). I originally wanted to explore the divide between women in the private space, and men in the public space. I felt that that wasn’t going to have the impact I wanted and retrospectively it was totally right for me to have changed direction. In the time in between, the Arab British Centre had agreed to me doing an exhibition, which was pushed back to March and (in that time) I started working at the Guardian on their data blog and got really fascinated in the world of info graphics and decided to incorporate it into photography. That kind of answers a little bit of how it came to be. Were you asking if I enjoyed it?

CAF: Yes, were you ever nervous about it?
MC: I was worried (laughs) because this isn’t what I technically do. As it was Iraq, it gave me a bit of a platform and made me more comfortable to speak about it: addressing social and political issues I know about. But to stand there and represent myself as an artist I felt extremely uncomfortable with because I am not an artist and I’m not even really comfortable saying I’m a photographer because I don’t think I have the experience or necessarily even the skills to describe myself as that. But the whole point of it was saying that art had to play a role in me achieving this, so I had to use art even though I wouldn’t use that as one of my professional titles. So it’s really, really nerve racking and something I really struggled with. Again, the Arab British Centre were very supportive, they said it was okay to not describe myself as an artist and if other people call you an artist… it doesn’t make you somehow, fraudulent or lacking in integrity.

CAF: How do you feel about it now? What has the response been like?
MC: The response has been really positive but as I’m quite a sceptical and self-critical person, I’m trying to use this time to digest. I think the event would have been a success for me if people who didn’t necessarily have an interest in Iraq but were interested in the idea of combining numbers and photographs, left learning something about Iraq. That’s the whole point of art; to give you access to something you necessarily wouldn’t engage with. I think as a method that worked and as a method that really engaged people. So, the logical next step would be to think about other issues that could really benefit from this method of combining photos and data.

CAF: I was quite impressed because at the moment there is a struggle to promote art within the Middle Eastern region, a lot of people don’t see it as important as a science based or mathematical subject and you bring the art discipline and the statistics discipline together and make them equal, which is very interesting as you’re bringing it all into one form….
MC: Yeah, and I think part of that, especially for you guys, art is kind of denigrated and that science is exalted but the reason why I brought it down to a level playing field wasn’t necessarily by saying that art is far more fantastic than you think it is because some of the questions that we put towards art are perfectly legitimate, like to say what this person has done, what’s the consequence of that? Are they legitimate? But actually those same questions also need to be applied to the sciences, “…Why did this person choose that data etc?” and I think that’s the way I gave them more of a level playing field by saying that data and statistics isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

CAF: We all know statistics miss out on bits of information. Statistics are just black and white and has no feeling to it. I think the image projects that feeling and it gives that cohesive image. It projects something that is reality and we were really interested in that. What made you use the statistics that you did?
MC: Well, I also have a background in international development and I’ve worked for an international NGO before as a monitoring and evaluations consultant on Iraq. As a monitoring and evaluations consultant you’re trying to understand needs in a country and you’re trying to understand how you can best meet them. When you’re understanding needs, you are looking at things like housing, access to water and electricity. I tried to take those keys things that are genuinely critical in shaping everyday life experiences, whether or not you can actually get access to water and electricity, but also temper them – for example 60% of home-owners say that security is a real problem for them, but that is only in Baghdad and actually if you go to another region it’s only 2%. So, as I just said, that infographic you saw was just of Baghdad and if you don’t read the word Baghdad properly someone could walk away and think that was Iraq. There is still the same danger of the images I presented in that if someone looks at it and walks away with a different understanding. But art is about interpretation anyway and statistics are about interpretation, you just have to kind of give up at a certain point.

Education, Mona Chalabi


CAF: You say that the exhibition explores the narratives of progress using photos from Iraq. What do you see in terms of progress in education in Iraq and the particular places you took the photographs from?
MC: You saw the one of the info graphics which is specifically about education, the one with the little boy. I think education is a really fascinating story in Iraq maybe more than any other Middle Eastern country. I don’t see any other country that has experienced the same kind of success then a rapid turn around like you see in Iraq. Literacy rates in Iraq were virtually 100%, school enrollment was 100% in the 70s and 80s because of quite draconian laws… not attending school being punishable by prison etc. But that’s a success, a positive indicator and you would have thought that literacy rates would be difficult to turn around once you have an educated population – parents are able to educate their children. One of the other aspects that fascinates me and this goes back to the exhibition, is the difference in education between men and women, so again, quite dissimilar to some Arab countries, not all… I saw so many women like housewives and mums with children who weren’t working. It took me a while to actually venture to ask ‘did you ever go and seek an education?’. The response shocked me. One answer was a bemused ‘yes I did, I used to work as a nuclear physicists before I had kids’. So many of these women are extremely well educated. And it’s still seen as an asset. Men would rather, not all obviously, be with a women who has attended a good university, they see it as a positive thing. But so few of them use it and for me that’s the most shocking thing as there is this entire workforce that has so much to give to the country that’s not being properly used. Also, on a personal level my mum was taken out of school and had to catch up on 7 years of absence in 1 year. She was absolutely determined that not only was she going to get educated but she was going to use it. Seeing how her fate has been shaped by that determination has had a big influence on me.

CAF: There seems to be a need for some sort of deep-seated cultural change for things to happen. Do you think that art and the creative energy that it provokes can help to create that cultural change?
MC: Yeah, I think it could. I also think it has to take place in a certain way to have that ignition effect. People don’t really meet in public spaces in the same way as they do here. People don’t really go to the theatre to see a play or a concert. If you go to a café or a shopping centre, you’re in your group and are engaged with the same people. But the idea of everyone having the same focal point and observing the same thing as you do when you watch a film or see an exhibition and being able to step away from it and have a discussion or dialogue around it, is often absent.

CAF: So, bringing communities together in some sort of workshop or hub?
MC: Like a gallery. Just bringing them to a gallery so that they can have some sort of discussion afterwards. When I think about the opening here at the Arab British Centre… to have done that in Iraq, would have, I don’t know… I would like to go back and give it a go. Who knows!

CAF: Would you ever take this exhibition to Iraq?
MC: I think it’s important that I do, even though I’m being really honest and putting my hands up saying that I know these development statistics aren’t perfect, for me to say they aren’t perfect isn’t the same thing as giving them to Iraqis and saying ‘what’s wrong with them in your eyes’, for Iraqis to be able to say that the ministry gave these statistics.

CAF: Yes I agree, it would be exciting if you did manage to take it over.
MC: …but someone was saying there are three galleries left in Baghdad. So there is not much left there.



CAF: So in one particular photo, ‘Patience’, there is the repetition of a single image. What is the story behind this?
MC: The image itself is a lawyer on the streets of Iraq, so the image itself is quite powerful as it’s divorced from the general image we have of a lawyer – he’s sitting outside under an umbrella. The statistics come from a series of data published by the World Bank called the ‘Doing Business Index’ for foreign companies seeking to establish themselves there and looking at the feasibility. It might seem quite bizarre to people who are not involved in business, for example, how long does it typically take to secure a warehouse and how long does it take to enforce a contract etc. So, it’s actually important and symptomatic of aspects of daily life in Iraq. Because they are so bureaucratic and frustrating trying to do anything, whether it’s changing a deed in a house or whatever. Just spending days upon days in ministry buildings and again that exists elsewhere in the Middle East… it’s part of the trauma, part of the bureaucracy you have to endure. So I wanted to go for such a simple info graphic that’s going to powerfully convey that. The implication of what that repetition is actually saying: in Iraq, 51 is the typical number of times you undergo a procedure for a contract. So the implication of that repetition is saying you have to do this 51 times. Every image here represents what you actually have to go through. On the other side, every single photo is supposed to show some kind of limitation of data and in that particular image the limitation is 51. That’s a really rough average. So, whether it’s three if you know the right person or it’s hundred because you don’t. It totally depends on your place in the Iraqi society.

Bureaucracy (close up)

Bureaucracy (close up)

CAF: I found that when I travelled to Africa, I found that everything takes twice as long because of the bureaucracy.
MC: …and you never know when a no means no, or yes genuinely means yes, and when you have to let something go, or do you keep fighting for it, am I charming this person? Or are they being rude?

CAF: The proceeds from your exhibition will be donated to the Alfanar charity you are involved with. Can you tell us more about Alfanar and what kind of work they do?
MC: I think it’s kind of interesting for your work because they run workshops to engage young people as well. I went to one of them hoping to hear about their particular model of development in the Arab region, and since then, I’ve been working for them because I have such a huge respect for their model of development. The whole point of every project Alfanar invests in is that at some point they have to stop investing and the (projects) have to be able to run by themselves. And that’s something that’s so frustrating with my experience working in the NGO sector. That kind of sense that we’re here to eliminate the need for ourselves…we have to pull out at some point. It’s lost because people are so passionate about their jobs and they just want to carry on doing it and they and they lose sight of that and Alfanar never has and that’s one of the reasons I really like them.

CAF: Do you think you will do another exhibition?
MC: I hope so.

CAF: Let us know when you do that…



Mona Chalabi is a development consultant. Mona previously worked as a monitoring and evaluation consultant at the International Organisation for Migration’s Iraq office and as a corruption researcher at Transparency International. She is currently a contributor to the Guardian’s data blog, Economics Editor of New Middle East Studies as well as an Adviser at Alfanar.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Credits: The Arab British Centre
Interview conducted by Kiran Sahib on behalf of Caspian Arts Foundation
Edited by Nina Mahdavi

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  1. Jahidul

    When I was in Baghdad two and a half years ago, it was unsafe for an American to go anryhewe near Haifa Street, even though it is a key shopping district. Those damned insurgents! Denying Americans our religious duty of shopping!So, for the past two and a half years, the level of violence has remained so high we need an esc sorry, SURGE to stop it. Who was in charge of our failed efforts during all of that time? Should we belive any tales of success they might now tell us? Why? It apparently is safe enough now for the Iraqi leadership to make a staged appearance, at least. I hope to learn soon that ordinary people–even American reporters–can travel about the city with a modicum of safety. So, staged visits by Iraqi leaders equate to having Americans walking around? I guess that means the Iraqi government is most certainly definitely positively absolutely not staged by Americans, right?