Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with The Third Line’s Sunny Rahbar

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

Rima Nasser: Can you share your journey into bringing art to the UAE? How did it start, what inspired you to do so and what were the challenges?

Ala Ebtekar, Amir H Fallah, Under the Indigo Dome, 2007, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sunny Rahbar: I grew up in Dubai, and Dubai is my home. I had an interest in the arts from a very young age, and after I went to London and then New York for my further studies, which were also in the arts, I came back in 2001 with a vision to provide a platform for artists in the MENA region. I started by organising independent exhibitions in different venues around Dubai, and in 2005 I met my partners, Claudia Cellini and Omar Ghobash, and we decided to open a permanent gallery space, which is how The Third Line came to be. I was inspired after the events of 9/11 to show artists from this part of the world that I felt had to be supported as their voices were very important and they didn’t have a platform at that time. It was challenging at first as there were no contemporary art galleries doing what we were doing, so there was a lot to do and to build. However, this was also a great learning experience for us.

RN: Which artists were the primary focus of your efforts? Did your choice change over time?

SR: The primary focus of the gallery was emerging artists from the MENA region, both those living in the region and also in the diaspora. This felt very urgent at the time as there was very little representation of these artists in the West, and therefore we were filling this gap in the conversation and creating a possibility for a dialogue to exist. Our choice hasn’t really changed; the gallery’s main focus is still artists from the MENA region and its diaspora, however, we have expanded this to include other parts of Africa and Asia.

RN: Could you outline the key elements of your gallery programme and how it evolved?

SR: Our programme has grown over time. Aside from our regular gallery exhibition programme and supporting our artists, we work on publications for our artists in both English and Arabic. We also host non-profit events including artists’ talks, film screenings and lecture performances. We have also opened the Third Line Shop. Launched in 2018, The Third Line gallery’s in-house shop focuses on local and regional makers, stocking exclusive limited-edition prints, artisanal crafts, artists’ multiples, books, designs and more.

RN: In what ways has this endeavour played a role in nurturing the art scene in the UAE?

SR: When we first opened in 2005 there was very little Contemporary art programming happening in Dubai. There were the Sharjah museums, which at the time were hosting the majority of the art exhibitions and programming in the UAE. There were no institutions in Dubai then. So, we were a part of the beginning of building the art scene in Dubai and that has now flourished and continues to grow.

RN: Can you provide an overview of the current state-of-the-art scene in the UAE?

Art Dubai, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

SR: The art scene in the UAE is on a rapid growth path, with new galleries, exhibitions and cultural events opening everywhere. Artists are also gaining global recognition, thanks to strong government support and institutions like the Sharjah Art Foundation and Jameel Arts Centre, the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi and the soon to be opened Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. There is also Art Dubai, which has become the leading art fair in the region, and Art Abu Dhabi. I feel that the art scene in the UAE will only continue to grow stronger and become one of the most important centres in the MENA region for arts and culture.

RN: What are your expectations regarding the evolution of the art scene in the UAE over the next two decades?

SR: I only hope that the scene continues on this path and that there is more institutional and governmental support for arts and culture so that the next generations can benefit from what has been achieved and continue to build upon it.

Sunny Rahbar’s notes on shows:

Hayv Kahmaran, Gut Feelings: Part II, The Third Line Dubai, 2023

Gut Feelings: Part II was Hayv’s fifth solo exhibition with us since our last show with her in 2016. This show was also held in our newly renovated space in Alserkal Avenue.

Havy Kahraman, Gut Feelings Part II, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Youssef Nabil, I Saved My Belly Dancer, The Third Line, Dubai, 2016

I Saved My Belly Dancer was an incredibly special exhibition to work on as it was the premier event of the film in the Middle East.

Youssef Nabil, I Saved My Belly Dancer, 2016, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Recollection, The Third Line, Dubai, 2007

This was our first show with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at our very first space in UAE behind Alserkal Avenue opposite Courtyard Theatre.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Recollection, 2007, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

About Sunny Rahbar

Through The Third Line Gallery, since 2005 Sunny Rahbar has offered a platform for MENA region artists while catalysing cultural dialogue within the global art discourse.

Sunny Rahbar, Founder of The Third Line. Photo by Kristina Sergeevay.

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