Lisa Ray’s tryst with art is not entirely new. An art collector, the 50-year-old would end up spending a large chunk of her pay cheques on South Asian art—both modern and contemporary. “I dragged art from house to house, across Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai and Dubai, refusing to part with my collection, irrespective of the cost of shipping it,” says the actor-author-wellness advocate, who is now based in Dubai.
But she was not content with merely collecting art. Ray had always dreamt of being part of an endeavour that would elevate the conversation on artistic practices from the Global South. In January, she co-founded TheUpsideSpace, a curator-led digital art and NFT (non-fungible token) platform, with Singapore-based art collector and philanthropist Ayesha Khan to focus on art from South-East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
In the past two-three years, NFT marketplaces of all kinds have sprung up across the world for art. Most are open to all kinds of creators. Ray, however, has positioned TheUpsideSpace solely as a curated platform. The team collaborates with curators from a range of backgrounds who mentor a diverse set of artists, keeping in mind the theme and region in focus. This ensures a varied selection of strong art practices. TheUpsideSpace features both traditional visual artists, who are new to the world of NFTs and are looking for guidance on how to navigate it, as well as new media and digital artists, who want to increase the reach of their experimental art.
The only other platform with a curated section is, perhaps, Terrain.art, founded by Delhi-based Aparajita Jain. Unlike TheUpsideSpace, though, it has an open marketplace as well.
Despite all the information about NFTs and the blockchain technology that powers it, there is still a lot of ambiguity about this space. This is why platforms such as TheUpsideSpace and Terrain.art have an educational component. “NFT and blockchain are relatively disruptive technologies,” says Ray. “There is a lot of noise, hype and sensationalism around them. But when you plough through all that and dig deeper, this technology has the potential to correct a lot of problems embedded in the traditional art world for artists, collectors and even gallerists.”
For one, it allows for greater representation of voices from South-East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East in the global art conversation, regions Ray and Khan are passionate about highlighting. “Our cultures are so unique and our stories need to be brought to a global audience through our art,” says Ray. Second, she believes it democratises art and restores agency of the artist. “This technology, albeit nascent, represents the next evolution in the discourse around authenticity, provenance and engagement with art.” It also makes it easier to sell and own digital art, thus making it a viable medium for artists to build their practices in.
The roots of TheUpsideSpace go back to the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, when Ray was in Singapore. There, she got to know Khan. When she moved to Dubai last year, the two connected again. “As an expat, when you move to cosmopolitan cities like Singapore and Dubai, you want to be able to share your culture with them and reflect accurately on what modern India is,” she explains.
So, when they decided to create an art platform, it seemed logical that they focus on the contemporary art scene. In a way, they were empowering expats like themselves to access all kinds of artistic expression, including those that never make it to the white cube space. “At the end of the day, this is an art platform, with technology being simply an enabler. The creators are at the heart of it,” adds Ray. “Whenever art intersects with innovation, it is met with resistance. However, we need to understand how technology can be used to transform the creative ecosystem.”
Some of the curators on board include Myna Mukherjee of Engendered, a transnational arts and human rights organisation, white noise, an NFT based art endeavour founded by Hari Pilaka, Parth Taco & Sajid Wajid Shaikh, actor-artist Kelly Dorji, writer Bandana Tewari, and Clara Che Wei Peh, a curator and arts writer based in Singapore, to name a few. The mix of artists on the platform is an eclectic one too, featuring mainstream artists such as Waswo X. Waswo, Sarnath Banerjee and Seema Kohli as well as digitally driven practices by Harshit Agrawal, UBIK and 1800.weirdo. You will also find works by Emirati artist Aisha Juma, Mumbai-based visual artist and musician Siddhant Vernekar, aka beegradehero, Malaysian multidisciplinary artist-architect Chong Yan Chuah, and others. Most works are priced between $120 and $60,000 and can be bought using a credit card. They are also available against the digital currency Ether for Web 3.0 natives wanting to use crypto currency
Since the launch of TheUpsideSpace, Ray has been collaborating with galleries for shows, participating in fairs like Art Dubai and conducting walkthroughs. During the Mumbai Gallery Weekend in January, they worked with the APRE Art House to showcase physical works and NFTs by artists from South Asia in the show Futur Proche. Curated by Sayali Mundye, it showcased artistic responses to the fluctuations and vagaries of time.
Now TheUpsideSpace has collaborated with Latitude 28, Delhi, for the show Mobocracy x Democracy. Curated by Priyanshi Saxena, this too is a mix of digital and physical works that attempt to examine the chimera that democracy has become since the advent of social media.
A collaboration of this kind is novel, with a mainstream gallery wholeheartedly embracing the digital and NFT space—for Terrain does not usually collaborate with other galleries. And that has a lot to do with the shared vision of Ray and Bhavna Kakar, founder of Latitude 28. Though the phrase, “NFTs are democratising art,” is an oft-quoted one, Kakar feels that not enough is being said about the safe space they are providing to artists to express their polemic artistic expression, under the protection of the cloak of anonymity, if they so wish. “Digital work has always been attached with the idea of replication. However, NFTs are providing the artists as well as art institutions with the opportunity to invest in digital art to mark uniqueness,” Kakar adds.
Moreover, the unique format of a phygital exhibition bridges two worlds—the white cube space and the open internet—, which critics have long claimed to be at loggerheads with one another. “This is an important collaboration as the exhibition features both artists working in only physical medium as well as those practising in the digital field. And then, there are some who are working with a hybrid digital-physical technique,” says Kakar. “There could be no better way to portray the power of social media on governance and public opinion than through all of these mediums.”
For Ray, it is empowering to work on shows that allow viewers to form relationships between the physical piece of art, digital creations and NFTs. Through a forthcoming fund-raiser with The Fearless Collective—a movement of participative storytelling started by artist Shilo Shiv Suleiman—she hopes to shed light on NFTs as a tool for philanthropy as well.
Ray believes artists from the Global South face obstacles ranging from the sociopolitical to the economic. “Accessing technology should not be yet another obstacle. We call ourselves the Web 2.5 platform, as part of which we have taken some principles and values from the traditional art system and migrated those to the digital world. There is a strong need for an art buddy, not just for audiences but also for the artists. We don’t want to leave traditional visual artists behind just because they don’t have the tools or know-how to navigate this space. To that end, we offer help such as digital intervention, and that makes us different,” she says.