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. her first show A universe madewhich has just opened at the Cranbrook Art Museum near Detroit.
A universe made is part short film and part exhibition of what appear to be parts of its set: artifacts of furniture, old cars, and unpaid bills that blend science fiction and social realism. It exuberantly – and purposefully – combines tropes from horror movies and TikTok videos to comment on serious issues like environmental injustice and the prison state.
Cranbrook Institute of Art
Olaniran, who is 35, is a planet of one – the guy other people circle around. “This is really the first film I’ve written and directed,” says Olaniran, who also plays the main character. “Tunde is a version of me that is an artist living in a Flint-like place and, like me, is very obsessed with comics.”
Olaniran comes from a working-class family with a grandfather who built cars on Flint’s assembly lines, a Nigerian immigrant father, and a mother who worked for unions and influenced the main storyline A universe madeabout a teenager named Leon.
“Leon is based on a person who lived in my neighborhood and was constantly robbing us,” explains Olaniran. “And I think the way my mother raised me was really to think, what is the structure that they live in and would make them make those kinds of decisions?
In the movie A universe made, Leon is kidnapped. He disappears through a mysterious portal. But in real life, Olaniran says, Leon was killed.
“Pointless can’t even begin to describe it,” they say, adding that for the young man the film fulfilled a deep, fantastic longing for a different ending. “What if the person I knew didn’t have to die the way they did?”
In the film, Tunde looks for Leon, who could remind the viewer of this at various points Go out and A wrinkle in time. Leon was imprisoned by an affectless bureaucrat who stood up for a state that poisoned Flint’s water for nearly a decade. Something subversive, outrageous, and defiantly local about the film is also reminiscent of early John Waters, who shot all of his films in Baltimore: Olanian’s cast and crew are all based in Flint and Detroit.
Olaniran was never formally trained as a filmmaker. You studied anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint, played music in bars and worked as a sex educator for Planned Parenthood.
“I would teach adults with developmental disabilities,” they say. “So how do you teach consent? How do you teach basic anatomy to someone who might have been raised in a group home?”
That work, says Olaniran, ended up being incredibly helpful training for a career as an artist. “What do you do with someone’s attention, if you get it at all? What are you doing on her mind?”
Something unique and brilliant, says Laura Mott, chief curator of the Cranbook Art Museum. “I really want Tunde to be a household name,” she says. “I truly believe that you are one 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 famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The two worked together on a shoot, and Ma is in the credits of the film.
In a scene from A universe made, Tunde unexpectedly ends up in a drab accounting office with several Flint women whose poisoned water was cut off because they couldn’t pay for it. One of them asks the stone-faced woman working behind the desk for help. For a minute it seems like she might soften. But in this sci-fi scenario, she is suddenly taken over by the malicious voice of a broken system, merciless and predatory. It’s scary.
But then something beautiful happens. Tunde and the other women begin to sing. They sing, open a portal in the universe.
“Our energy transforms it and pushes against its edges,” says Olaniran.
Tunde and the woman from the clearing house rescue Leon. They even rescue the woman trapped behind the desk. A universe made convincingly tells a story about the power of art. But Olaniran, the product of a city once known for working-class collectivity, says that’s only part of the message.
“If we combine,” they say, “rather than trying to escape separately, what force does that generate?”
Tunde Olanirans A universe made will be on display at the Cranbrook Art Museum through September. Curator Laura Mott says other museums have expressed interest in showing the exhibit across the country.