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, He made a Universejust opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art near Detroit.
He made a Universe it’s part short film and part exhibition with what look like pieces of its set: furniture artifacts, old cars and unpaid bills that blend science fiction and social realism. He exuberantly—and aptly—combines tropes from horror movies and TikTok videos to comment on serious issues like environmental injustice and the state of cancer.
Cranbrook Institute of Art
Olaniran, who is 35 years old, is a person’s planet – the type that other people revolve around. “This is the first film I’ve written and directed, really,” says Olaniran, who also plays the title character. “Tunde is a version of myself, who is an artist, who lives in a place that looks like Flint, who, like me, is very obsessed with comics.”
Olaniran comes from a working-class family with a grandfather who built cars on the assembly lines of Flint, a father who immigrated from Nigeria, and a mother who worked for labor unions and influenced his main story He made a Universeabout a teenage boy named Leon.
“Leon is based on a person who lived in my neighborhood and used to rob us all the time,” explains Olaniran. “And I think the way my mom raised me was really to think, what is the structure that they’re living in that would lead them to make those kinds of choices?
In the movie He made a 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, imagined yearning for a different ending for the young man. “What if the person I knew didn’t have to die the way he did?”
Tunde the character is looking for Leon in the movie which can remind viewers at various points Get out and A wrinkle in time. Leon has been imprisoned by a concerned bureaucrat, who supports a state that has allowed Flint’s water to be poisoned for nearly a decade. Something subversive, outrageous and defiantly local about the film is also reminiscent of early John Waters, who made all his films in Baltimore: Olaniyan’s cast and crew are based in Flint and Detroit.
Olaniran never formally trained as a director. They studied anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint, played music in bars and worked for Planned Parenthood as sex educators.
“I would teach adults with developmental disabilities,” they say. “So how do you teach about consent? How do you teach basic anatomy to someone who maybe grew up in a group home?”
That project, Olaniran says, ended up being 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 to their mind?”
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 he is 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 the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The two collaborated on a recording and Ma is in the credits of the film.
In a scene of He made a Universe, Tunde unexpectedly lands in a seedy billing office with several Flint women whose poisoned water has been shut off because they couldn’t pay for it. One of them begs the stone-faced woman working behind the desk for help. For a minute, it looks like he might soften. But in this sci-fi scenario, she is suddenly overwhelmed by the malevolent 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 opening a portal to the universe.
“Our energy transforms it and pushes it to its edges,” says Olaniran.
Tunde and the woman from the accounts processing office rescue Leon. They even rescue the woman trapped behind the desk. He made a Universe convincingly tells a story about the power of art. But Olaniran, the product of a city once known for its working-class collectivity, says that’s only part of the message.
“If we connect,” they say, “what force does it produce instead of separately trying to escape?”
Tunde Olaniran’s He made a Universe will be on display through September at the Cranbrook Museum of Art. Curator Laura Mott says other museums have expressed interest in taking the show across the country.