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October 3, 2019

Meet Tunde Olaniran, 2019/20 UMS Research Residency Artist


Tunde Olaniran

UMS is pleased to announce Michigan-based musician Tunde Olaniran as this season’s Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist. A beloved fixture of the Detroit music scene, as well as a product of the growing artistic community in Flint, Olaniran will be collaborating with fellow Flint artists Talicia Campbell, Terra Lockhart, and Emma Davis on a new multimedia piece about bridging the cultural divides within the southeastern Michigan region. Tunde and his collaborators will be in residence in Ann Arbor for several periods throughout the 2019/20 season.

Get to know Tunde’s music on #UMSplaylists for Apple Music and Spotify:

Apple Music logo Spotify logo

UMS student staff member Allison Taylor recently interviewed Olaniran about his upcoming project with UMS:

Tunde Olaniran

Tunde at UMS’s ‘Day of Action’ in Flint, Feb 2018

How did you find out about this residency opportunity with UMS?

I happened to meet UMS leadership in Flint last year and we connected. We were talking about the real disconnect between campuses, issues with the hierarchical system that’s informally in place, and how to break down those barriers. This was a conversation that was started at the Yo-Yo Ma event, where there was this community conversation and dialogue, and the more we spoke, and the more I told them about what I was working on, they were just kind of looking at each other, and they were like: “What would you think about doing this [residency with UMS]?”

So, I sent them some thoughts on what I would want to do on campus. Something I’m passionate about is helping artists in Flint connect to more resources. In Flint, there isn’t a ton of direct investment into individual artists in this city. There aren’t really any fellowships for individual adult artists in Flint. I don’t even think there are fellowships for K-12 — there might be scholarships, but I don’t know. I said that if I’m doing this fellowship, I’d love to bring someone from Flint with me who I think is an emerging artist, and be a mentor to them throughout this. So, we got a little creative. UMS agreed to make it happen, and they were able to secure funding so that I could actually bring a cohort of three women in the arts, who are in different stages of their career, to be a part of this residency. And that’s really important to me. They are all from Flint: there’s a choir teacher, a dancer and instructor at University of Michigan—Flint, and a sculptor and installation artist at U-M–Flint.

How do you plan to use the resources of UMS and this residency to further your own artistic vision and activism?

I have a specific project — it’s with the Cranbrook Art Museum. We received some funding from the Knight Foundation that’s allowing me to work on an experimental film series that blends performance, music, and installation art, so there are some specific resources at U-M that we’re hoping to explore. And also, honestly, I’m kind of scouting to see if there are dancers, singers, people who want to be a part of the actual film series when we go into production for 2020.

How do you plan on transferring and implementing your ideals to the classroom? What classes do you hope to or plan to work with specifically?

We have a running list of departments that we are reaching out to. We’ve reached out to the Duderstadt Center, and the Music and Dance departments [in SMTD]. The October visit is to see who we can meet, see where people are for the semester, and see what we have the bandwidth for.

You’ve talked a lot about your Nigerian heritage and your semi-nomadic upbringing in other interviews, and how it’s affected your art. Are you still searching for belonging? How has this journey affected the evolution of your art?

I don’t know if “belonging” is a priority. I feel like there are different times and places where you feel like you belong, and that can change rapidly. What I’m most focused on right now is creating space for myself and for other artists. That’s a big part of what motivates me right now. I’m really focused on making space for myself to create and express myself.

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to face thus far—both artistically and personally? Are they the same?

Structuring time is a big part of it, and giving yourself time to absorb other influences. As artists, especially if art is your sole means of sustenance (like for me, art is my only job), you can get caught up in trying to create for something specific, like an algorithm or a specific market. I think that can be really dangerous, and that’s a struggle I have, and something I’m trying to work on more. So, taking the time to just be influenced in a very general sense (through reading, listening, watching other people’s performances, etc.), without looking for something specific to get out of it, is so important. And then, finding places that are really down to either invest in you, and are excited about creating space that doesn’t have a ton of strict expectations on outcomes, especially being in a place like Flint.

Flint has been through so much in the past half a decade. We’ve gotten a lot of investment in certain aspects, but I would say for artists, right now, there is very little investment in creating space for artists to talk about what they’ve been through in the past 5 years outside of a photo op, or outside of a youth program. Those things can be amazing, but again, I feel like they put a more unnecessarily arbitrary boundary around what an artist can create. I feel like that’s a symptom of institutions and art funders not really trusting artists in the city to do work and explore their work. So, we’re at a stage where if you talk about a fellowship with someone who runs an art institution, you can see them really struggling with that idea. The biggest grants that go to individual artists are for only around $5,000, which is not really an investment. Ultimately, that’s like you’re purchasing a short-term project.

All that aside, there is a lot of opportunity because there are a lot of resources in the city. I feel like the barriers [to these resources] are the walls between large institutions across the state to talk with each other more openly and teach each other how to trust the artists in their communities. For example, I think there are some amazing things that Detroit does really well in supporting its artists, and could show us in Flint, and I think there are some things Flint can show other cities. And I think there are things U-M can show U-M–Flint, and U-M–Dearborn. So, those are things I see as challenges, but also as opportunities.

Are there any specific challenges you are prepared to face during your residency?

I don’t like to go in thinking there will be opposition, but I feel like when it comes to creation of art, there can be a disconnect between an academic setting and a commercial setting — like an artist like me, who is developing a practice outside of an academic setting. I think it’s about having a shared understanding and respect for the work each other does, and not feeling like a commercial approach is going to taint a pristine academic training. And even if your goal isn’t to be a commercial dancer, it can be interesting for you to do something that is focused on that, because it can inform your practice in other ways, no matter what you do down the road. And I also think that, for me, U-M is such a large system, and I’m hoping to feel like we’ve touched every point that feels relevant and important while we’re there, and not regret not hitting someone up that would have been a perfect partner or a great place to create.

What are you most looking forward to during this residency?

It’s funny because I used to work for Planned Parenthood (I was the Director of Education for the state of Michigan) and their offices are in Ann Arbor, so I’m looking forward to being in Ann Arbor for a longer stretch of time. Also, Talicia Campbell is the direct mentee that I’m bringing with me, and I’m really looking forward to bringing her to campus. She’s a choir director, and she and I formed a choir when we filmed a PBS special. So, I got to get to know her and her background, which is gospel and church choir work. I’m really interested to see how she reacts to being in a more “academic” environment, and to see how that feels for her, because I don’t even know if she sees herself as an artist. But I see her as one. So I’m also really excited to have her with me on campus.

What’s your ultimate goal through this residency?

So, the video series I’ll be working on is a seven-part series, and for every video I have selected seven different Detroit artists to collaborate with; each artist works in a different medium. I have two videos in my mind that I think there’s work we can do [in Ann Arbor]. I, along with one of the of the Detroit artists, Carlos Garcia, who is a graduate of U-M, have been working on 3D scanning and rendering for the videos, so being able to scan and render and work on specific art that way at U-M would be ideal. I am hoping to have some conversation about future musical work on campus. It would also be amazing to find a group of vocalists, whether they exist already as a unit or not, and compose a piece that would be filmed as part of the series.

Watch Tunde Olaniran’s latest music video to “Vulnerable”…