Tunde Olaniran is a rising star in the art world: NPR

A Midwestern museum known for mid-century design may have found the art world’s next big star.

Tunde Olaniran is a musician, filmmaker and artist who grew up in Flint, Michigan. Their first show, Made universejust opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art near Detroit.

Make a universe is part short film and part exhibition of what appear to be pieces of its set: furniture artifacts, old cars and unpaid bills that combine science fiction and social realism. He liberally — and pointedly — combines tropes from horror movies and TikTok videos to comment on serious issues like environmental injustice and the carceral state.

A still from Tunde Olaniran’s new film screened at Cranbrook Art Institute

Cranbrook Institute of Art

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Cranbrook Institute of Art

A still from Tunde Olaniran’s new film screened at Cranbrook Art Institute

Cranbrook Institute of Art

Olaniran, who is 35, is a man’s planet – the type that other people revolve around. “This is really the first film I’ve written and directed,” says Olaniran, who also plays the title character. “Tunde is a version of me who is an artist living in a Flint-style place who, like me, is very obsessed with comics.”

Olaniran comes from a working-class family with a grandfather who made cars on the assembly lines of Flint, a father who emigrated from Nigeria, and a mother who worked for labor unions and influenced the main storyline in Made universeabout a teenager named Leon.

“Leon is based on a guy who lived in my neighborhood and robbed us all the time,” explains Olaniran. “And I think the way my mom raised me is to think, what is the structure that they’re living in that would make them make that choice?

In the film Made universe, Leon is kidnapped. He disappears through a mysterious portal. But in real life, Olaniran says, Leon was killed.

“Senseless doesn’t even begin to describe it,” they say, adding that the film fulfilled a deep, fantastical longing for a different kind of ending for the young man. “What if the man I knew didn’t have to die the way he did?”

The character Tunde searches for Leon in the film, which may remind viewers at various points of Get out and A Wrinkle in Time. Leon is imprisoned by a callous state deputy bureaucrat who has allowed Flint’s water to be poisoned for nearly a decade. Something subversive, outrageous, and defiantly local about the film also calls to mind early John Waters, who made all his films in Baltimore: All of Olanian’s cast and crew are based in Flint and Detroit.

Olaniran was never formally trained as a director. They studied anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint, play music in bars and work for Planned Parenthood as sex educators.

“I would teach adults with developmental disabilities,” they say. “So how do you teach consent? How do you teach basic anatomy to someone who maybe grew up in a group home?’

That job, Olaniran says, proved to be incredibly useful training for a career as an artist. “What do you do with someone’s attention, if you get it at all? What do you do in their minds?”

Something unique and brilliant, says Laura Mott, Chief Curator at Cranbook Art Museum. “I really want Tunde to be a household name,” she says. “I truly believe they are some of the most talented people I have ever met in my life.”

Mott helped the artist raise about $250,000 to make the film and introduced Olaniran to the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The two collaborated on a recording, and Ma is credited for the film.

Yo-Yo Ma and Tunde Olaniran combine classical music, hip-hop and R&B on ‘Doorway’.


In one scene of Made universe, Tunde unexpectedly lands in a bleak billing office with several Flint women whose poisoned water has been turned off because they can’t pay for it. One of them asks the stone-faced woman behind the desk for help. For a minute it looks like she might soften. But in this sci-fi scenario, she is suddenly overtaken by the malevolent voice of a broken system, ruthless and predatory. This is terrifying.

But then something beautiful happens. Tunde and the other women begin to sing. They sing of opening a portal to the universe.

“Our energy transforms it and pushes it,” says Olaniran.

Tunde and the account processing woman rescue Leon. They even rescue the woman trapped behind the desk. Made universe convincingly tells a story about the power of art. But Olaniran, a product of a city once known for working-class collectivity, says that’s only part of the message.

“If we connect,” they say, “what force does that generate instead of separate escape attempts?”

Tunde Olaniran’s Make a universe will be on display through September at the Cranbrook Art Museum. Curator Laura Mott says other museums have expressed interest in bringing the show across the country.

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