GMT GCC catches up with Richard Mille Art Prize winner Nabla Yahya

She’s the real deal. Nabla Yahya talks imposter syndrome, the importance of political discourse in art and how, sometimes, the quiet ones can be the ones to watch.

When we catch 30-year-old artist Nabla Yahya just a few days after she was announced as the recipient of the prestigious Richard Mille Art Prize, she’s already back to her ‘day job’ at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. In fact, it seems as though despite having attended a glamorous ceremony in her honour at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the fact that she took the ultimate prize at the culmination of the world-famous institution’s yearly Art Here exhibition really hasn’t sunk in.
“I’m still pretty stunned,” she smiles, her wide-eyed expression explaining just as much as her words. “I don’t think I’ve processed it. It happened very quickly and then the next day I went to work — I haven’t really had a moment to sit with it! But everyone’s so happy and I’m just really grateful.”

It’s understandable why Nabla’s having a hard time taking the full scale of this achievement on board — indeed, any artist would. Being selected as one of the seven artists to have their work displayed at Louvre Abu Dhabi in the regionally-focused Art Here was enough to take her by surprise in the first place, so scooping the final title along with more than Dhs200,000 in prize money was the icing on a very big — and prestigious — cake. So how did this Abu Dhabi-born contemporary artist get here?
It’s been a long and difficult road for Nabla. In a story that will be familiar to many long-term UAE residents, she’s a classic Third Culture Kid and has experienced all the identity crises and access struggles that can come with it: “I was born in Abu Dhabi, I grew up between Jeddah and Dubai, my father is from Kashmir and my mother is from Kerala. Her father moved here in ’68,” she explains. “It was so meaningful, and emotional, to win such a prize in Abu Dhabi where I was born.”
Nabla studied architecture at university in London and stayed in the city for six years before moving back to the UAE because she couldn’t find stable work to sponsor her visa. But it was an encounter with 2019 Turner Prize-winning Jordanian contemporary artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan that really turned things around.
“I always tell people that he saved my life,” says a clearly emotional Nabla. “Literally and figuratively! I owe a lot to him. I had been following his work for a while and when I found out he was in the UAE I approached him to ask if he needed an assistant — so that’s how it started in 2019. I had absolutely no confidence whatsoever and was completely broken, very depressed, but Lawrence is such a generous person and trusted me with his work. It was then that I began to believe that I was capable of doing things.
“A few months later, an anonymous person nominated me for the SEAF programme — the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship — which each year chooses 15 young artists to support. Alongside that I continued making art for Lawrence and he is by far the most important mentor I’ve ever had, I wouldn’t be here without that experience.”

So where is ‘here’? Nabla’s prize-winning piece, SoftBank, focuses on the untold stories of the workers who did the back-breaking labour of digging the Suez Canal. A multi-layered installation, the piece features pictures of those mostly forgotten labourers, suspended from a replica of the French-built conveyor dredger that was developed to shift silt from the canal while it was under construction. A similar replica was displayed at the 1867 Paris Expo, as a symbol of French ingenuity and might. But the workers who did the majority of the earth moving — far more than could be achieved with the machine — weren’t mentioned at all. Nabla’s work aims to shed light on those forgotten stories, and where better to do it than in the heart of that symbol of French imperialism, the Louvre, in its Abu Dhabi outpost.
However, after being encouraged to submit her application to Art Here and the Richard Mille Art Prize, a humble Nabla didn’t imagine she’d even be shortlisted — “I have so much imposter syndrome! I really don’t know if I’ve done enough to have someone write about me.” — let alone win the competition outright. But it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as her deeply political and socially conscious work was always going to capture the imagination in a region where human rights are a hot topic.

“I’m deeply interested in politics, history, philosophy and critical analysis, trying to look at the world and make sense of that,” says Nabla. “I would like my artistic practice to evolve into a form of resistance and protest. The art that really speaks to me is the art that makes me think or helps me see something in a different light. That’s also why I had been following Lawrence’s work for so long, because it’s very political. It’s about sharing knowledge, making certain things more visible and cutting through some of the propaganda — that’s what I think an artist is meant to do. I mean, I also appreciate art when it’s beautiful and that’s all it is, but I really think that for me, it means so much more to me than just making something beautiful. My background, with my dad being from Kashmir, me being Muslim, growing up here, I couldn’t help but be aware of injustice from a very young age, although I viewed it from a very privileged level. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that I cannot look away.”
So what does Nabla’s family make of her new-found success? Her mum proudly accompanied Nabla to the Richard Mille prizegiving ceremony while her dad, who worked for most of his life for Citibank, had his eye on a different type of prize…
“When we came back from the ceremony, the first thing my dad asked was: ‘Did you ask the Richard Mille team for a watch?’” laughs Nabla. “The prize meant so much to me because, considering my dad’s background and that he’s completely self-made, and how hard he worked to give his children what he himself dreamt of, the emotions took over and I gave him my trophy. It’s in his study now, and he’s so happy!”

Nabla’s interactive SoftBank installation, intended to highlight the injustice of the conditions endured by the workers who dug the Suez Canal , could be hand-operated by onlookers.

So now she’s an internationally-recognised artist, what’s the next step for the shy and unassuming Nabla? Not your usual ultra-confident artiste, Nabla may come across as reserved, but every word she says reverberates with depth and meaning. She’ll use her prize money as a kind of scholarship to fund further education — “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to university at this point in my life — as a non-resident Indian I’m not eligible for any scholarships,” she explains — with her sights set on grad school in the United States. So how will the change of artistic climate for her politically charged works affect her process? Not too much, says Nabla.
“The notion of freedom of speech is a myth, it doesn’t really exist anywhere,” she adds. “There are people in Germany losing their jobs just for calling for ceasefire in Gaza. I don’t view any government as ideal, and I try not to censor myself. This work in particular is based on a historical precedent, but I was hoping that people would draw parallels with our contemporary life under capitalism and how exploitative labour practices continue today. Capitalist hegemony dictates the way we live our lives, and our role is reduced to that of consumers. I just wanted to talk about something in the past in order to make people see that nothing has changed. I think we all think we’ve progressed and have figured out ways to be less cruel. But maybe we haven’t grown as a species. Why is that? And what can we do differently?”
As far as this member of the species is concerned, she’s definitely growing — and flourishing. We’ll be watching closely to see where this incredibly incisive artist takes her work next.