Indian artist wins Richard Mille Art Prize with work about Suez Canal's forgotten horrors

Nabla Yahya's installation SoftBank explores obscure history of waterway's construction and the maligned workers who died in the process

Nabla Yahya, winner of the third Richard Mille Art Prize and $60,000. Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi
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Multidisciplinary Indian artist Nabla Yahya has been awarded the third Richard Mille Art Prize.

Yahya, a UAE resident, won with her installation titled SoftBank, which explores the brutal history of the construction of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869.

The installation is fitted with an interactive carousel of archival photographs of the construction and workers from France's Suez Canal Company. Some 1.5 million indentured labourers worked on the project, with thousands dying for reasons that ranged from exhaustion to cholera.

The prize, organised between Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Swiss watchmakers, comes with a $60,000 award. Works by shortlisted artists are currently on display at the museum as part of Art Here 2023, which runs until February 18.

“I am deeply honoured to receive the 2023 Richard Mille Art Prize,” Yahya said. "This recognition is a testament to the power of art to transcend boundaries and illuminate hidden histories.

SoftBank is not just an installation; it's a dialogue between the past and the present, a reflection on the Suez Canal's transformation. This award fuels my commitment to exploring untold stories and challenging perspectives through my work.

“Thank you to Louvre Abu Dhabi and Richard Mille Art Prize for championing creativity and providing a platform to contemporary artists like me.”

SoftBank comprises three components, which contrast a slab of travertine, engraved with the original form of the canal.

The etching is lined with silver leaf, providing a shimmering contrast with the pale travertine stone. A healing bowl bubbles with water on one side. It is engraved, not with contemplative Quranic passages, but rather with the mottos of imperialistic narratives.

Yahya aimed to spotlight workers who were subject to inhumane working conditions through the photographs. However, while there were plenty of archival images that showed the canal’s monumental aspect and the dredges, there weren't so many of the workers.

“I had to think a lot about my intention, what I was showing, and why I was showing it,” she said previously. “For instance, like there's an illustration over there, which shows that they were child labourers toiling the land as well.”

This year, artists were tasked with producing works under the theme of Transparencies.

"Each artist in the exhibition provided a surprising and novel engagement with the theme," said Maya El Khalil, curator of Art Here 2023.

"The multidimensionality of Nabla Yayha's work ultimately made the award a unanimous decision.

"SoftBank approaches the idea of Transparencies indirectly – interrogating difficult histories that are treated as unseen when they should be confronted. The details of the work shed light on the invisible currents of finance, trade and labour that structure the region.

"It is both a brilliant response to the theme and a significant work with the astute complexity that is a hallmark of Nabla's practice and thinking – we are all excited to see what she does in future."

The Richard Mille Art Prize began in 2021. The award invites artists in the Gulf region to propose new or existing artworks that engage with the chosen theme for the year. Shortlisted works are displayed at Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of their Art Here exhibition.

Updated: January 25, 2024, 11:13 AM