Model, actor and tech founder Lisa Ray talks about her move to Dubai and her digital art platform focusing on NFTs

A curator led arts digital platform, The Upside Space recently went live and is now the focus of Lisa’s workday

By Sujata Assomull

Published: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 8:08 PM

Last updated: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 8:11 PM

If you thought you had to be a millennial to be a multi-hyphenate, then you have not met Lisa Ray. The 50 year old is considered to be one of India’s first supermodels, has worked in films and television as an actor in both the West and the East, with her role as young widow Kalyan in Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film, Water, being one of her career high points), anchored television shows (again in both the Global North as host of Top Chef Canada and Global South working on shows for TLC), authored a critically acclaimed book, is a wellness advocate, a keen art collector — not to mention a mother of twins (four-year-old daughters), a wife (she is married to Jason Dehni, a fin-tech entrepreneur), a daughter (her father turns 90 this year) and lives with her at the Dehni-Ray residence in Dubai’s Arabian Ranches). Then there is also her cat, Pluto.

She now adds co-founder to her resume. A curator led arts digital platform, The Upside Space recently went live, and right now is the focus of Lisa’s workday. Throughout her career, Lisa has spoken about the need for creative industries to be more inclusive and now she looks to shine a spotlight on artistic talents from the Middle East and Southeast and South Asia powered by new-age tech in the form of NFTs. A pioneering system for art, her co-founder is Singapore-based art patron Ayesha Khan. Collaborating with curators such as Bhutan’s Kelly Dorji, Pakistan’s Omer Nabi and Bali-based Bandana Tewari, they hope to give global visibility to regional artists, while also demystifying the metaverse to the average consumer.

Originally of Bengali-Polish origins, Lisa was born in Canada and has since lived in Mumbai, London, Milan, Hong Kong, Singapore and now Dubai. A self-confessed nomad, she believes Dubai will be her home for a while. She is an active member of the cultural community in Dubai. The Upside Space will also be part of Art Dubai in March at the digital galleries section.

She recently participated in the Emirates Literature Festival for a session focusing on her 2019 debut book, Close to the Bone, a memoir that looks at her journey. Behind the scenes there have been many difficult moments in this 50-year-old’s life. From moving to Mumbai when she was a teenager, after a car accident that left her mom paralysed, to her own multiple myeloma diagnosis in 2009, this book reminds us that life is a precious gift to be celebrated.

I first met her almost 30 years ago, as Lisa was about to make her music video debut in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s, Afreen, in the mid-1990s. I invited Lisa to write a piece for the newspaper for which I was then working. She had already gained a reputation for being a wordsmith, (funnily enough it was about how to start an art collection). Yes, she has had to overcome obstacles, but she turns each one into a life lesson. She has today designed a life that gives her purpose professionally and personally, while she continues to push the boundaries of creativity. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You have always called yourself an accidental actress, would you now say you are an accidental founder, too?

I call myself an accidental actress because there was no intent behind a career in front of the camera. In fact everyone who knows me well, understands that my nature runs contrary to a career in the spotlight. I’m introverted and dislike crowds and attention. I’ve written about the serendipitous circumstances that led to my career in Mumbai in Close to the Bone.

In the case of The Upside Space, I think my trajectory in this direction was set many years ago, when I bought my first piece of contemporary Indian art from my first-ever paycheck as a model at the age of 16 in Mumbai. It was by Suhas Roy, from the Bengal school of art. I have an enduring passion for artistic expression from these regions — South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East — and it has all come together in The Upside Space. My co-founder Ayesha Khan who is based in Singapore, approached me with the concept and idea of starting this platform and magical serendipity worked in my favour again.

So, it would be correct to call you a Passion-Preneur?

I could not avoid art growing up. My father is from Bengal, where artistic traditions permeate all conversations. It’s in my genes, though I have no formal education in art. I’ve developed my own perspectives and tastes independently and this is another issue I want to address through The Upside Space — the traditional gatekeeping in the art world. You don’t need to ‘know’ the first thing about art theory to appreciate it or collect it. We live in regions like the UAE, India, which are steeped in unique artistic traditions that need to be celebrated and amplified. Art is life, art is the cure. Art is essential. This is the next evolution in art.

Why did you decide on a NFT-driven digital gallery?

NFTs are a revolutionary enabler and delivery system for art in today’s day and age. After immersing myself in the possibilities of this tech I have come to the conclusion that NFTs represent the next art revolution. Firstly, I have to say there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what NFTs are and I must emphasise that NFTs and cryptocurrency are not one and the same thing,

Your husband, Jason, is a FinTech expert — did that rub off on you?

I think it has. I remember speaking to Jason about the opportunity to build The Upside Space at the dinner table. Normally he would discuss blockchain and it would go in one ear and out the other and I would discuss literature or arts and it would have the same effect on him.

I was initially not certain about co-founding a tech start-up, but he said, “If you consider yourself creative, you need to be open and flexible to everything. Explore and educate yourself on this opportunity first, before you make up your mind”.

It has been a year now since you moved here. What made you move to Dubai?

It’s one of the best decisions we have made as a family. I followed my husband to Dubai one year ago and we have not looked back. We are very proud residents of the UAE and look forward to having our roots here. I was happy to be participating in the Emirates Literature Festival this year, after being an attendee last year. And now, as a co-founder of The Upside Space, Dubai has given us the base to start a quality platform with relative ease. The UAE simply provides an ideal foundation for business and dream building.

You have so much planned, including Art Dubai, tell us a little bit about it?

We are thrilled to be included in the 2023 edition of Art Dubai. I’ll be there personally and ready to engage with patrons and the audience. I have attended many art fairs, and this will be my first as a participant. Education and engagement are a large part of what we do at The Upside Space, and I have attended many phygital exhibitions in the UAE that sealed my confidence in NFT art as a revolution.

Remember, digital art doesn’t mean physical art dies. They co-exist. This is a narrative we hope to bring to the audience at Art Dubai, as well as celebrating our artists.

How do you hope to educate and engage?

Web3 is all about community and accessibility, so we make the experience welcoming, exploratory and the tech is as frictionless as we can manage. You don’t need to know anything about making a wallet, we do that on the backend, we accept fiat currency and credit cards aside from crypto and we are intent on designing a new art ecosystem where everyone can participate.

NFTs are also empowering for artists as they offer another source of income and a way to create a community. We don’t want anyone to be left behind as this movement gains momentum, so we offer digital intervention for artists unfamiliar with the space. I don’t come from a tech background, so I frame it this way: The potential ROI and viewing art as an investment in a balanced portfolio is revolutionised through NFTs, which make holding and exchanging art so much easier.

So, what about your career as an actor? You are missing from your Amazon Prime series, Four More Shots Please, is that now on hold?

I have been acting for a long, long time. I am focused on writing my next book and building The Upside Space currently. Acting has not been my focus for a long time. Having said that — I thought I had retired until Rangita Nandy (creator of the show) approached me to be part of Four More Shots Please! — so you never know.

Is Modelling now a closed chapter for you?

I am at the point in my life when I only focus on fulfilling activities or those that challenge me. People forget I started at 16 and I am 50 now. I have literally seen the evolution of the entertainment business in India and experienced it all. I am investing in my evolution on a personal and professional level now.

Would you say you are a public or a private person?

I am very private. I have a public persona and I am less fractured from myself than when I was younger, but I guard a lot of my life from the public.

You were open about your multiple myeloma journey, was that hard?

It was a relief to share my cancer diagnosis publicly. I inadvertently became the first Indian personality to speak about cancer openly and I’m so happy to observe the taboo around this subject slowly dissolving.

What about writing, is there another book in the offing?

Yes, I am working on another two books right now.

How do you juggle it all?

Great support from my husband and my helpers, empathetic friends, making time for yoga, Pilates, or tennis every day and never trying to get it right — loving my flaws. I think almost every woman I know is adept at taking on multiple roles. I get overwhelmed sometimes but my foundation is strong and my belief system pulls me through most things.

One thing about Lisa our readers might find surprising...

I'm a goofball yet am very, very spiritual. And I trained in the art of miming in London.

Now in your 50th year you seem busier than ever, would you say that life is just beginning for you?

I don’t endorse or celebrate being busy as a distraction from yourself. But in my experience, there’s nothing sweeter than a purpose-driven life. Here is my mantra for this year:

The mind says

This river has no bottom

The heart says

We can build a bridge here.

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