TEDxToronto 2019: Umbereen Inayet, Artistic Producer at Nuit Blanche, City of Toronto

Umbereen is an award-winning producer and curator of public art. She has been an Artistic Producer at Nuit Blanche for the City of Toronto, one of the largest free contemporary art events in North America, for over a decade and has worked with artists and artists studios including Ai Weiwei, Bill Viola, JR, eL Seed, Floria Sigismondi and Director X. She uses her background in social work throughout the curation process and in collaborating with artists to elevate art as a medium for storytelling and source of narrative therapy.

(To see Umbereen live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

What was your first “million-dollar idea”?
Growing up in Scarborough, I was dealing with racism because I was different. People couldn’t pronounce my name, my skin was brown, my religion was different from everyone else, my grandparents walked me to school and I often had Pakistani food packed for me for lunch.

My first million-dollar idea came to me when I was about 9, and it was to use art and storytelling as a tool to deal with the racism I was experiencing. I thought to myself, if people could just see what it looks like and felt what it felt like, maybe it would inspire them to change their behaviour.

At that age, I wrote a play, casted people in my class to act in it and convinced one of my teachers to film it. It was through the process of creating a vision, knowing how to communicate it, finding and interviewing others that were going through the same thing, gathering like-minded people to create an artwork and then put it on display, was something I continue to utilize today. I still use art for the bigger conversations that we need to have, that’s the valuable part of it.

When I produced The Vagina Monologues in my early twenties I soon realized when you align yourself with not only local but high-profile artists on the stage, the seats were sold out, the press was everywhere, the message went further, and we were able to give thousands of dollars to a women’s shelter because of it.

That’s when I realized the power of working with people who not only care but have an existing platform to share.

What’s the wildest idea you had to sell somebody on? How did you do it?
Before it was a common thing to light up the CN Tower with different colours based on what is happening in the city and in the world, I wanted to shoot an artwork of lasers in the colour of the rainbow at the CN Tower, called Global Rainbow by Yvette Mattern. The idea of treating popular tourist destination and an iconic part of the skyline as a canvas was foreign to people and wasn’t an option.

I know that there is power in storytelling and that people need to feel in their core why something is meaningful if they are going to take a risk like this, so I wrote a letter. I included the powerful statement on the actual artwork and did what I could to paint a picture about how the significance of this project was bringing a great sense of unity, peace, equity and humanity to the city through using the CN Tower as a canvas for this project.

Name a big idea in your lifetime that you’re surprised never took off?
One big idea I had that translated into an opportunity through the work I did was to bring an artwork with a certain pop culture icon and a visual art performance piece to Toronto. It was blocked at the time, because it wasn’t considered contemporary art. The big idea that I am always working on is bridging visual art with pop-culture icons. I think the reason for that is because I am trying to bring the pinnacle of pop culture and contemporary art together in one project, which are very different realms. When people don’t know how to categorize something, it can be hard to see the value of taking that risk.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day-to-day work? How do you take it on?
My biggest challenge used to be convincing people of the merit of bridging contemporary art with music and getting the budget needed to do that. I take it on by seeking out the people who are champions of this kind of work to collaborate with. I find through sharing my vision and therapeutic process there are enough people out there who want to engage in something meaningful with the goal of co-creating something that has a powerful effect on our communities and can play a part in bringing a positive impact on how art shapes culture.

Where do you look for inspiration?
I think my inspiration comes from an unshakable desire to be a part of creating what I see as possible. There isn’t one particular source of inspiration for me, it’s my ability to see possibilities and the world itself. I am always thinking about how to bring the influence of iconic musicians with the ability of contemporary art to communicate ideas when presented publicly. My obsession with that idea means every song I hear, every film I watch, every book I browse and every conversation I have can contain a spark of an idea or a burst of passion on how to realize this bigger vision. I also look for inspiration through travel, being an anthropologist and explorer of life, I study human behaviour, culture, nature and the universe.

If you could achieve one goal in the next 18 months what would it be? And why?
It would be to be the bridge and work with the biggest music, fashion and contemporary visual artists in the world to affect humanity through public art and pop culture. It could be on a massive stage concert tour, as an exhibition, a runway, any public space or institution. It could also be somewhere unlikely—a distant field or park, a desert, a street, a public square, a mall or a space station—as long as it brings these worlds together.

The bigger the artist, the bigger the message and I am excited about the possibility to work with multiple artists from diverse disciplines to create large-scale iconic artworks with the intention of serving humanity that can be accessible to aficionados and the general public alike.

(To see Umbereen live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

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