Tunde Olaniran On The Journey of Debut Film & Exhibit 'Made A Universe'
Tunde Olaniran is allowing viewers to step inside their mind with their debut film and exhibition, “Made A Universe”. Currently showing at the Cranbook Art Museum just outside Detroit, the contemporary, thriller-inspired project has a narrative arc of a hero’s journey. It reflects Olaniran’s life struggles, “feeling very powerless” while growing up poor in Flint, MI.
Drawing inspiration from comic books such as Marvel’s X-Men & New Mutants, the multifaceted artist and musician picked up themes “where the borders and edges of reality get blurred in the story.” Here, Olaniran speaks about the exhibit topics like the character’s perceived weakness translated into their superpower, Olaniran’s spiritual connection with the work, and the importance of collaboration.
What was your source of inspiration for this project?
Two of the big pieces that are pretty obvious are that I'm a huge comic nerd. I think I've gotten more into comics over quarantine and picked up some titles I haven't read in a while. [Comic book author] Chris Claremont is one of the big names in the history of X-Men Comics and had so many incredible storylines with characters that delve deep into the psychology behind these superheroes. He put his characters through hell more than a lot of comics were doing at the time. There are so many moments with the characters where the borders and edges of reality get blurred in the story, but also by the edges of the panel in the comics. They experimented with how they visually told those stories. I also love horror movies and went down the rabbit hole of watching those slasher movies, the tropes, and those kinds of thrillers. The third thing that inspired the story was living through the water crisis in Flint and just living in Flint and having a very specific relationship with the state. Not just Michigan, but I mean the state as a broader political term. That experience influenced how this story was told.
What did you learn from the other artists throughout this collaboration?
I learned a lot from getting to talk with other artists about their own traumas, their own times when they felt powerless, and having the story as the jumping-off point for us to discuss that and then figure out how we can illustrate these feelings and these experiences visually. I learned a lot about them as people, and then I learned what they're afraid of, what's scary to them, what's exciting to them visually, and what fills them with dread. A lot of times, artists collaborate and are like, "let's do a song together," or "let's do a joint show," or "let's throw a party," but I don't think you get to delve deeper into what makes those people who they are. In a place like Michigan, we have seams of different cities, but it's not easy to cross those geographic boundaries, especially because we have no public transit. If you don't have a car, you're not going anywhere. Being able to not only connect with artists outside of your city in Michigan, but also to talk more about our feelings about our life and our histories and the frustration of living in a place like Flint or Detroit is amazing.
What was the most challenging part of creating this project?
Before this, I've done visual storytelling in music videos. I think my live performance is a form of visual storytelling and how we stage and move bodies and space on a stage. Doing a film and working with the producer, whose name is Paige Wood, and she co-wrote this with me. Her biggest role in the co-writing process was that we'd have a weekly call all through 2020 and talk about each chapter in the film, what things mean, and what needs to happen narratively to convey that meaning. You have to have an internal logic to your story that you can come back to and revisit, and that is communicated in a script and in casting, in wardrobing, and in lighting. Having that initial text is that thing that that whole crew has to look back to. It's not physically possible that you can be present at every decision on a production like this, so the core group has to have a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve as far as a story from beginning to end. That was a new thing for me, and I'd asked someone I knew was a director doing some stuff in Detroit that I was a part of as talent, not on the production side. I was like, "what do I do as a director? I feel so overwhelmed." She was like, "your job is to be a communicator, you don't have to learn the technical details of every light, every camera lens, but you have to be able to communicate very well to a large group of people." I'm used to doing everything myself, and it really taught me how to work as part of a team.
The film is premised around the character's perceived weakness and how it translates into their unique superpower. Is this reflected in yourself and your own life?
I think it came from having instances of feeling very powerless, growing up poor, and growing up working class. It's a very well-known fact that day-to-day life for poor people takes years off of their life because of daily stress. Everything has a heightened sense of fight-or-flight, and your body stays in a heightened sense of reaction to stress and trauma and a constant feeling of not being in control of much in your life. That is why comic books and superheroes always appealed to me because it was that idea that you can have a power that controls parts of your life or situations that you are in. When it comes to X-Men, I think the reason why they have such a strong queer audience is the thing that makes you the outcast is what also gives you a place in this newfound family and is the thing that gives you strength. Those themes of power are two-fold in terms of how I relate to them and how other people can relate to the story.
The film examines what it means to unlock your power in the face of fear and repression, unifying various fragments of your psyche to connect with the world and yourself on a deeper level. Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I don't know if that means the same thing for everyone. I feel like I sense power and energy in some way. I don't know if I've spent enough time in my life to examine what I think that is, but I sense power and energy, and I feel at times that I've been able to tap into those things. That's the extent of what I'd say about spirituality for me. I'm interested in the stories we tell about spirituality, cosmology, about where power and creation come from. All of those creation stories are interesting to me, and the systems that develop around those beliefs are really interesting. With these X-Men comics, there's an iconic storyline from the '70s called "God Loves, Man Kills." It's the plotline that the second X-Men movie was based on, loose to that storyline. The history of religion and spirituality influence every artist if you are even remotely connected to society.
You spoke about the immersion of sometimes-painful memories that also formed a space for reflection. Did this film allow you to combine your creativity with some of the hardships you had to go through growing up?
One of the characters in the film is based on a real person who I had a connection to because they lived in my neighborhood. That person passed away very young due to gun and gang violence. We had a complicated relationship as neighbors and lived in the same community, and I think about what possibilities could have happened with this person's life. I tried to write a part of them into the story as one of the main characters as my way of trying to meditate on what else could have happened. Just because of the way I was raised, my mom is very community-oriented, and that's part of her politics. She's a leftist, and it's very easy now to be leftist online and weaponize your politics to control people. When you work with real organizers, leftists, and radicals, there's some love for the community because that is why they do what they do. They believe everyone has dignity. My mom and I were actually targeted by him and robbed and a lot of different things. Because of who my mom was, he was not a criminal in our eyes; this was someone who was young and needed help. No one deserves to be thrown away. This is why I'm a prison abolitionist. I wrote this character into this story as a metaphor for this person, and me just wishing that we could have actually saved this person's life. It's not my personal story, but it's someone whose story I briefly intersected with before they passed.
How do you think this experience strengthened your artistry?
I think I have a higher tolerance for stress. The first day on set, I walked, and I was like, "there's like 40 people here; what is happening? I don't know what is going on!" I was like, I need to grow up and take responsibility for this production. If you put out a song and you're unhappy with it, you don't have to promote it or talk about it. With something like this, no matter what you have to stand behind the film because to not do that is disrespectful to the people that gave their time and energy for the production. It gave me a sense of more responsibility as an artist and to have more responsibility if I bring people in from the community on this production, standing behind the work we all did collectively. That was an interesting new dimension of being an artist that I had only scratched the surface of before. I love watching other people work, and I'm sure I annoyed some folks. I'd ask someone, "why'd you make this decision?" because I'd wanna know what's going on in their thought process that leads them down that road. It can only make me have better judgment in the future if I understand how people weigh their decision-making, especially in stressful situations or tight delivery lines, like how do they manage that. I'm always keeping my antenna up to learn from my peers, people that are so talented, and then even on the production side – even my executive producer, learning more about that aspect. In this museum show, doing stuff that I've never done is something that's huge. I was paying attention to how things work. I'm from Flint; we don't get that. I don't live in a big art market, I've never had access to institutions like this, so I was really trying to pay attention.
"Made A Universe" is currently on display now through Sept. 25 at the Cranbrook Art Museum.