Ali Akbar, or Horace Pittman, as he was previously known, died suddenly in late 2009 at the age of 64. That’s too young to die, but even so he was perhaps 20 years older than most people assumed. He would be 70 this year, and that fact is impossible to digest. He lived a life of rich, inspired adolescence.
In the ’80s, ’90s, even well into this century, he was the one whose appearance signified that this party was the right party, and that it had started. A short, tightly wound genie in colorful garb and a broad-brimmed hat, he became the wild, chthonic spirit of this city’s bohemian edges. For only that, as a walking, shouting, dancing party, he would have been well known. But in fact he was an artist, and spent most of his time working alone, to surprise us once again with his bold colors and shapes on paper or canvas.
He was originally from South Carolina, but after injuries in a rarely mentioned tour of Vietnam, he emerged in Knoxville with no explanation or apology. People argue about when he arrived, whether it was during the World’s Fair or a year or two before, but it was when punk and even hardcore punk prevailed on the westernmost blocks of Cumberland Avenue. He loved lots of music, especially jazz, but would attend punk shows as if it was all the same thing–in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact that he did not fit in. He was always the oldest attendee, and often the only black one, standing out in those crowds as a contrarian hippie, his colorful clothes and scarves at unselfconscious odds with our severe poses. A few more open-minded bands invited him to the stage as a guest vocalist, and he obliged with his own ad-libbed lyrics, with confidence and ease as if it was his job.
Horace was Horace, and so well known he needed no last name. But just as everyone knew him by that name, he changed it. In the early ’90s, he became Ali Akbar. “Islam is not a religion,” he told his startled friends. “It’s a way of life.” It was a way of life that seemed to oppose his own exuberant persona, and for a time he was serious, sober, deliberate. He said Islam forbade depicting human figures, and he experimented with designs and patterns. In previous years, Horace had at times seemed too extreme to last, and friends wondered if Islam was the moderating influence that would save him. He was scarce for a while, living and working alone in his apartment off Sutherland Avenue. But with time he moderated again in the other direction, and while still Ali, some of the old Horace reemerged, appearing again unexpectedly after midnight, daring us to dance.
He loved life, and for what remained of it, he kept exploring and sharing and, as far as we could tell, never slowed down. One of his paintings, “Blues Man,” which was reproduced for prints and T-shirts, became the album art for jazz pianist Donald Brown’s 1995 album, Wurd on the Skreet.
He left us a trove of art, some of which even his friends had never seen. Since his death he has become the subject of a series of stories by his friend Bill McGowan, published first in a journal called La Cuadra in Guatemala and now in a newly published book, The Ali Files: On The Town With Ali Akbar (Celtic Cat Publishing). He’s the subject of a professionally produced short documentary. And his art is currently on view in the exhibit WHO IS THIS MAN?, a labor of love by his old friends at Holly’s Corner in Happy Holler, the most comprehensive exhibit of his life’s work ever mounted, much of it never previously displayed in public, previewed here.
It may be the best proof that he’s still with us.
Many people would call him “mercurial.” There was one thing that he never strayed from, however, that was that he wanted to be seen as an artist.
Then, there was that voice which he wielded like an oracle. I have seen him drop to his knees to talk to kids on their own level with his musical voice that delighted the children to no end. People either loved Ali Akbar or they were intimidated by his flamboyant style.
I remember back in the early ’80s when we were all kind of down and out financially and living in rough little apartments, one day Ali just showed up at my door with a whole cooked chicken on a platter. He had cooked it his “special way,” he said, and carried it with some ceremony down the street on this platter to my door. It was a sight just to see him carrying this fully formed yardbird all dressed out and ready to eat. And typical of how thoughtful he was.
Ali was known for his art (and to be honest, sometimes for his drinking) but that was probably not the most important thing he did. In the time that I knew him, and I met him as Horace, he underwent several changes in his life and attitudes about things. What he did not change was what I consider in retrospect to be the most important thing about him. Ali had a knack for giving people permission to be themselves. He was weird and approachable, at home and out-of-place all at the same time. But he made it work. In doing so, anyone around him who felt the least bit self-conscious was liberated to go ahead and be themselves. If you had made “fitting in” your life’s work, you would just see him as strange but, if you already stood out, whether it was circumstances of your birth or choices you had made, the world was a little easier to exist in with Ali around. The fact that he could have that affect while being difficult in ways that you had to know him to believe, made him a seriously unique character.
During the second set, Ali got up and started dancing real close to the musicians when they were playing a solo. I’d seen him do this before. He’d go up to within a foot of the end of the horn or sax; he’d hover near the drums; he’d bend his head down to the sound holes of the bass and groove on the pure, mainlined sound. I’ve never known anyone who channeled music the way Ali did. I think it penetrated his body as a physical substance. I believe that it entered his bloodstream and then coursed throughout his cells. I think it mingled with and strengthened his soul, which is why he danced so well. When he got closer to the source of the sound, I guess he just got a bigger dose.
A few times in this life, you meet people who, by their own brand of benign weirdness, assuage the bad crazy of this world. They take it away and replace it with something good. Sometimes, they pay a heavy price for this compulsion—poverty, isolation, early death. We should appreciate them more while we’re in the same plane of existence.
Ali Akbar was one who put his life on the line. For art. One of those whose very existence was a kind of experiment in living art.
I met him in the early ’80s when he began coming to our shows on the Strip and the couple of downtown clubs that strove to make a scene in those days. I was in a quasi-reggae band called Cheap Shoes. We were doing groove music when punk was rearing its pretty little scarred head. Ali was as likely to be moshing to Teenage Love as skanking to us on consecutive nights at Vic ’n’ Bill’s. What white guy in a yet another white band nicking riffs from a Third World music wouldn’t feel validated by the sight of Knoxville’s own blackheart mon whirling around in front of the stage, shirtless and roaring “LORD OF LORDS KING OF KINGS CONQUERING LION OF THE TRIBE OF JUDAH!”
Generally revving up half the room and frightening the other half with his bellowing and lurching around like a little pot-bellied gnome. He was an oddity that way—traveling in and out of our various subcultures, racially stratified or otherwise, belonging to all of them. Or rather not belonging to any of them.
One night around 3 a.m. as we were loading out of Vic ’n’ Bill’s, I got stuck giving Ali a ride home. The buses had stopped running and what was I supposed to do—leave our No. 1 of our dozen or so fans to the tender ministrations of fate on Sutherland Avenue? I wasn’t keen about driving that far in the wrong direction from home that late and that high/tired/drunk. But it gave us a chance for quiet discussion away from the bars. I learned that he had stopped depicting the human face in his artwork because it was—supposedly—anathema in Islamic art. It seemed he had recently converted and was now “Ali Akbar,” not Horace Pittman as we’d formerly known him. How his brand of Islam jibed with his former Rastafari attitudes, I failed to ask. He did let me in on the little-known fact that white people were actually the result of a failed experiment by the supreme Deity. But this was cool because it made a lot of sense, especially the part involving monkeys.
The defining encounter came when we bumped into each other one day at the 11th Street Espresso House (a part of the old artists’ colony next door to the former World’s Fair site). He was wearing a natty suit jacket. But there was this crap pinned all over the breast pocket and lapels. Like, litter he had picked up and stapled onto his coat. Just colored pieces of paper and cloth. “Ali, what’s THAT?” I asked, nodding to his—I don’t know—battle ribbons?
“That’s art,” he grumbled, like I wasn’t who he thought I was if I had to ask.
I wish I knew him now more than then. When I foolishly thought it was important to keep my head screwed on straight.
Nancy Brennan Strange:
I used to sing at Ivory’s, in Bearden, and he’d come down and would sit right in front of us. It wouldn’t matter if anybody else was there, he was like having a hundred people there. He would clap, and do all this physical stuff, real animated, like I was the greatest singer in the whole world.
As an artist he was game and undefeated. His spirit came into whatever he did and had a positive effect on everyone around him. When you were working with Ali you always felt like you could break on through to the other side.
As a painter, he’s been called an “uninhibited colorist,” which is totally true. It’s like he found other properties and powers in color the way he gathered them together and juxtaposed them, like he thought the story of color hadn’t been fully told yet.
WHO IS THIS MAN?
A Retrospective Exhibition of Ali Akbar
Holly’s Corner (842 N. Central St.)
Through May 16