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Artist Tunde Olaniran's 'Made a Universe' opens a portal at a Detroit museum

Artist Tunde Olaniran
Steven Piper
Tunde Olaniran
Artist Tunde Olaniran

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

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

Made a Universe is partly a short movie, and partly an exhibition of what looks like pieces of its set: artifacts of furniture, old cars and unpaid bills that combine science fiction and social realism. It exuberantly --and pointedly — combines tropes from horror movies and TikTok videos to comment on serious issues such as environmental injustice and the carceral state.

A still from Tunde Olaniran's new film playing at the Cranbrook Institute of Art
/ Cranbrook Institute of Art
Cranbrook Institute of Art
A still from Tunde Olaniran's new film playing at the Cranbrook Institute of Art

Olaniran, who's 35, is a planet of a person – the type other people orbit around. "This is the first film I've written and directed, really," Olaniran says, who also plays the main character. "Tunde is a version of me, who is an artist, who lives in a Flint-esque place who like me is very obsessed with comic books."

Olaniran comes from a working-class family with a grandfather who built cars on Flint's assembly lines, a dad who immigrated from Nigeria and a mom who worked for labor unions and influenced the main storyline in Made A Universe, about a teenage boy named Leon.

"Leon is based on a person who lived in my neighborhood and robbed us continually," Olaniran explains. "And I think the way my mom raised me was really to think, what is the structure that they're living in and would lead them to make these kinds of choices?

In the movie Made A Universe, Leon is abducted. He vanishes through a mysterious portal. But in real life, Olaniran says, Leon was killed.

"Senseless does not even begin to describe it," they say, adding that the movie fulfilled a deep, fantastical longing for a different kind of ending for the young man. "What if the person I knew did not have to die the way they did?"

Tunde the character searches for Leon in the movie that might remind viewers at various points of Get Out and A Wrinkle in Time. Leon's been imprisoned by an affectless bureaucrat, standing in for a state that's allowed Flint's water to be poisoned for nearly a decade. Something subversive, outrageous and defiantly local about the film also evokes early John Waters, who made all of his movies in Baltimore: Olanian's cast and crew are all based in Flint and Detroit.

Olaniran never formally trained as a filmmaker. They studied anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint, played music in bars and worked for Planned Parenthood as a sex educator.

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

This work, Olaniran says, ended up as 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 in their minds?"

Something unique and brilliant, says Laura Mott, chief curator at the Cranbook Art Museum. "I really want Tunde to be a household name," she says. "I really believe they're one of the most talented people I've ever met in my life."

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

In one scene of Made A Universe, Tunde unexpectedly lands in a drab billing processing office with several Flint women whose poisoned water has been shut off because they could not pay for it. One of them begs the stone-faced woman working behind the desk for help. For a minute, it seems that she might soften. But in this science fiction scenario, she's suddenly taken over by the malign voice of a broken system, pitiless and predatory. It's terrifying.

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

"Our energy is transforming it and pushing against the edges of it," Olaniran says.

Tunde and the woman from the billing processing office rescue Leon. They even rescue the woman trapped behind the desk. Made A Universe 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 connect," they say, "What power does that generate instead of separately trying to escape?"

Tunde Olaniran's Made 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.