‘Art intimidates a lot of people and that is what I want to change’: Actor Lisa Ray

At 16, with her first paycheck, then an upcoming model, Lisa Ray went ahead and bought a painting to celebrate her brush with success. The relationship with art continued as she continues to remain an art aficionado through her long career as a model, actor, author, poet, activist, and several other identities that she has inculcated over the years. It is this long relationship with art which has now led to the launch of The Upside Down, an NFT marketplace spotlighting art and artists from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Middle East to help open their work to the Web 3 audience which she has co-founded with Singapore-based art professional and collector, Ayesha Khan. She spoke to Business Today about her long and interesting journey with the arts.

BT: You never cease to surprise us with what you pick up to do. Your interest is varied and now you are making a fresh start with digital art and NFTs. How did one thing lead to other?
Lisa Ray:
To put things in context, my relationship with the arts is not new. I have been collecting art since age 18. I remember when I moved to India and at age 16 as a model, I spent my first paycheck on buying a Suhas Roy painting. I have grown up in a family which appreciates art but in Canada while you would not think buying art was something a middleclass family did. But I was then a teenager, and I just went and purchased this piece and I felt very mature and accomplished. It has travelled with me everywhere and I cherish that piece of work. So that is how my journey with the arts started. So, I always had this dream that one day I would do something with the arts like one day I would do this, one day I would move to Bali, but we just tuck those dreams in our back pockets. During Covid my family and I were in Singapore and I met Ayesha Khan. We share very similar life stories and between us, we had this idea of capturing diaspora art. When it comes to art, people are usually either in the category of art collectors and consumers or in the other category where people would get defensive about art and say I don’t understand art. And then I got to a point where people would start unpacking and say I really like art but I feel intimidated, and I don’t know where to start.

BT: Do you think digital art is more inclusive than other traditional forms of art? Will The Upside Down address this?
Lisa Ray:
I think the art world excludes people like me like those who are not educated in art and I would stay tucked away from those conversations but at the same time, I would nurture a very adorable belief from what I have experienced in India in terms of its contemporary art and how fearless the young artists of today are about self-expression to engage at a political and social level and the talent too has grown manifold. And this idea was lying around when Ayesha suggested that we use disruptive technology to break down the boundaries and limitations around art. I appreciate digital art, but I had to research Blockchain art and then we decided to create an art platform which is an art, artist platform but we are not chasing the tech, but harnessing it. So, the idea was not to disrupt for the sake of disruption because I am 50 years old and I did not want to do anything like that, but I felt it was time to harness the technological power of Blockchain to democratise art. So, I thought it would be the right occasion to question why people would be intimidated by art or why they don’t have the confidence or delight to engage with art. So this is not just about setting up an NFT platform which would have been an easy thing to do, but it is about making an ecosystem for enabling sustainability for art and artists.

BT: What specific genres of art will The Upside Down focus on and who are the curators on board?
Lisa Ray:
Our specific interest is in the art of South Asia and Southeast Asia and the Middle East. So if you see our artists, most of them have never thought of creating NFTs ever, so we partner with them to help convert their art to NFTs. We are supporting their art with digital intervention. So, while it can get very intimidating for traditional artists to go ahead and create their own NFTs on our digital platform. So, we are also introducing a combination of physical art and digital art as they say phygital to attract the Web2 audience. The Upside Space is curator-led and includes Kelly Dorji of Bhutan; Myna Mukherjee of India; Morrow Collective of UAE; Omar Nabi of Pakistan; Bandana Tewari, who is based out of Bali; and TO NEW ENTITIES of Singapore.  

BT: NFTs have played a big role many times in times of crisis. Do you think it could be of financial aid to support causes in Southeast Asia?
Lisa Ray: NFT art is significant as we see how NFTs help artists tide off political and economic instability. And Sri Lanka is not very tech-forward but we put together an exhibition called Brilliant Resilient. Primarily it is about empowering artists with tools and skills. So basically, the entire idea is to make the platforms more and more accessible. Yes, a large number of people can get financially empowered through NFTs and the space has a lot to offer. We are here to help artists close their digital gaps and the future looks promising.

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