words by Malika Shermatova

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas. Here we speak to Safa Al Hamed, co-founder and managing director of The Empty Quarter about her passion, vision and determination to change the perceptions of women in the Middle East through art and photography.

Safa Al Hamed is the co-founder of The Empty Quarter together with the Saudi Arabian Princess HRH Reem Al-Faisal – a unique project in its own right and certainly the first of its kind in the region – the only gallery in the UAE & Middle East that specialises exclusively in fine art photography.

When asked about the quirky name of the gallery Safa explains that The Empty Quarter is a translation of Rub’ Al Khali from Arabic – also the name of the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, which encompasses most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

The gallery is a direct and rather fruitful outcome of Princess Reem’s all-time passion for photography,
which she has from an early age, combined with Safa’s love for photography, creative vision, determination as well as the passion for promoting the role of women in her country – a mission which was well reflected in The Seven Princesses exhibition which was commissioned by The Empty Quarter few years ago. The very idea behind the exhibition which consisted of a series of twenty-two portraits by renowned American photographer Steve McCurry was to challenge the stereotypes and display the strength, freedom, diversity and character of Emirati women from different generations and backgrounds, while “highlight the UAE as a queen and the seven emirates as seven princesses,” according to Safa. This, combined with Princess Reem as a co-founder, who already very actively curated a number of programmes, the gallery and its success is clearly a strong message that women in the Middle East are indeed thriving entrepreneurs and successful business leaders. “I loved photography so much that I travelled around the world to visit most of the Americas, Paris, or the British capital, where I met
Reem Al-Faisal, a well-known international photographer living between Jeddah, Paris and London, who expressed her desire to show her work in Dubai, which prompted me to seriously consider setting up an exhibition for her artwork.”


The profile of the gallery is nothing short of international with its concept being represented twice at the world’s largest international art fair dedicated to photography, such as Paris Photo, the recognitions and accolades are also galore. It has won the BMW Paris Photo Award (2009) and published a number of books including “Oman 1971” in collaboration with Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey. The gallery also hosted the “Prix Pictet Earth” world tour (2009), Art Paris Art Fair among the 10 best galleries (2013).
Serving a rapidly growing membership of artists and photo enthusiasts, the gallery has undoubtedly
established itself as the ultimate and one of the leading platforms that appeals to the world and attracts most prominent artists. The gallery works closely with young emerging talent as well as internationally renowned and well-established photographers such as the award winning Steve McCurry, Bruno Barbey, Marc Riboud, and Al-Moutasim Al Maskery, among others.

In addition to exhibitions, The Empty Quarter also offers additional services such as fine art printing, including customised framing, as well as ArtClub&RentalDXB – a web-based luxury service launched in 2017, which allows the members to rent pieces of art from top galleries and artists for their homes or office. All that is required from the prospective members is an application disclosing the level of security in their office, showrooms or apartment building where the art is intended to be displayed, a membership fee plus 10%-50% of the value of any works that the member is intending to rent.

Ideally located in the heart of Dubai, The Empty Quarter also provides a unique setting for exhibitions, receptions, pop-up shops, installations, photo/ film shoots, training sessions, workshops, classes, social and corporate events of any size.

copyright Al Moutasim Al-Maskery


Besides her tireless work in changing the perceptions of women in the region, Safa is also a dedicated supporter of young local talent. Over the years the gallery has proudly hosted works of a vast number of locally well-known photographers in the UAE, which included the native Emirati Ali Bin Thalith, Amani Al Shaali, Omar Al Zaabi, to name a few. “I am trying to provide the opportunity for these talents and names in the UAE and the Gulf”. “The platform is a cultural platform in the UAE to build partnerships with us to help local talent to present their work on a global scale. I believe that The Empty Quarter is well qualified to be a global bridge of cultures and a gateway to the global experience.” according to Safa.

From the series: “Beyond the Fog”, Title: “Tree of Life”, Oman 2016
Photography copyright Al Moustasim Al Maskery


The biggest milestone for The Empty Quarter so far has been opening “conversations” worldwide, from
East to West – something that was made possible via photography and art, according to Safa. Building on its success to date, the aim is to transform The Empty Quarter into a world-class art show displaying the highest level of artistic quality. With an impressive list of circa fifty-five memorable exhibitions, showcasing the works of sixty-five international artists to date, the list continues to grow with a pipeline of even more interesting projects – for example showcasing the works of the likes of Samuel Davis, an American professor – a story telling type of exhibition displaying imaginary and staged photography.

But there is also something that sits closer to heart – the gallery had started to collect historical photos of the UAE – an insight into its past, its identity and also into the future, something that it is aiming to showcase during Art Dubai in March 2019. The collection will also include shots of two Japanese photographers who visited Dubai in 1962, and there might even be a glimpse of Sheikh Rashid’s photograph as well. While photography is still a younger medium [for the region] and had to earn its place and prove its value, the market for fine art photography in the UAE is, says Safa, increasingly positive. Bravo!

Carl De Keyzer’s exhibition “Moments before the Flood”, The Empty Quarter Gallery, various photos.
Photography copyright Carl de Keyzer/Magnum