Artist of the Year: Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts

Empty beer bottles, a keg, pistachio shells, paintbrushes, a precarious old wooden ladder and photocopied fliers scattered throughout Johanson Charles gallery in Eastern Market isn't damage done from late-night workers installing a show at the last minute. It is the show. The 65-year-old artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts is an elder in Detroit's creative community who believes making art is a sacred act that reclaims spirits. He calls up Ogun, the Yoruban god of warriors and metalworkers (hey, same difference in Detroit too) when seeking the former life of a hubcap or fender.

His Johanson Charles show, Reflectionz: Abandon Poemz and Memory Songz ... Afrikan Burial Groundz Part 7 is one of two solo exhibits by the artist this winter. His work also currently appears at William H. Thomas Art Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, through the end of the month. These shows are a sampling from a project that's ongoing, as he continues to make 100-some collage paintings and found object installations. But then again, his art is always in progress. His "improvisational monuments," although suggestive of the African and African-American funerary traditions, are not about the end of life; rather, they are shrines for the constant beginning that is evolution. Even the man's name — Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts — has its own rhythm that reverberates like the pulse in his drum beats and poetry, and the patterns in his collaged paintings.

For him, a gallery is just another studio, and an opening reception is not the culmination of hard work; he's just gotten started. "See that vodou altar there," Pitts says, standing smack in the middle of Johanson Charles, pointing at the coins, bottle caps from across the globe, oils and candles, propped up on shelves and a pedestal. "That wasn't there in the beginning of the show. I just didn't like the empty center."

Pitts' has hung around Detroit his whole life, give or take a stint in Los Angeles and several years of traveling. Many people don't know he comes from a gifted family of 10 children, including his sister Zenolia, who has an operatic voice, his brother Nehemiah, who's been involved in theater and worked in drug counseling, and his brother, Cornelius Pitts, a prominent attorney at his own local firm. Mom, Zenolia Pitts, and Dad (he doesn't give out Dad's name because he's transcended already) both moved to Detroit during the Northern migration, and his dad worked in a factory. They fell in love like folks used to back in the '20s, at a baseball game on Belle Isle, and courted for a year before marrying. Zenolia is now 102 years old — pretty damn fine a life for a woman who's born 10 children. "It made her stronger," her son says. "She doesn't want to leave yet."

Making sure all the children were educated was something worth fighting for — for both Pitts' parents. At a young age, his father encouraged young Aaron's artistic efforts by using his son's drawings as teaching aids in Sunday school and Bible classes he taught. He also paid for drawing lessons. Pitts graduated from Cass Tech in 1959 and studied at Los Angeles City College and Odis Art Institute in California before returning to our city to obtain his bachelor of fine arts degree from Wayne State University. In 1969, he founded Black Graphics International, a local press to publish his own and others' work that he believed deserved some white space.

Pitts gives Zenolia a voice in nearly all of these publications by creating a language for her in nearly every word he writes — replacing the letter 'S' with a 'Z'. In an ode to mom, which appears in a 2001 publication devoted mostly to Detroit's unsung music legends, he writes:

driving acrozz the highwayz

watching cloudz speaking silently

then ur visionary smile appearz

wide and jostling w/ laughter

az if u're riding shot-gun

making the heart skip a beat

in mid-flight

At the gallery, Pitts points out his mixed-media collage as a map showing where he's been in life. The work is made with sheets torn from old billboards, a photocopied self-portrait and one of Malcolm X, next to a fragment of an adage often spoken in Africa: "To educate a man is to educate an individual. To educate a woman is to educate a nation." His "canvas" is made from found wooden slats; this craftsmanship is based on his knowledge of construction, remaking a wall with sheet rock, nailing down thick slats before there was plaster. The colorful, graphic scraps of billboards, often ripped five-sheets-thick, are reshaped as abstract imagery. He's painting with paper instead of a brush to commemorate his roots as a printmaker.

Pitts' art was intensely sociopolitical "in the beginning," he says, but it obviously still is. Such prominent figures as Nelson Mandela take center stage in his collages, as do musicians, revolutionary in their own right, such as Thelonious Monk. When he was living in Los Angeles in the '60s, he visited San Francisco a lot and got involved with the Black Panthers, and, back in Detroit, it was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. But he was also inspired by heroes from the art world he encountered in the '70s. He recalls sitting on a couch in the same living room with Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Sam Gilliam, to name a few, during annual events organized by the National Conference of Artists. He conversed with his heroes about how they got started and major moments in their careers. Sometimes, encouragement came from just soaking up the vibe, watching a young abstract expressionist chat it up with a graceful old Harlem Renaissance painter.

"That scene instilled in you a sense of well-being, that you could achieve what you wanted to achieve and your style didn't have to be "whatever was going on at the time, but what you wanted it to be." During this period — back in '79 — jazz music was thumping, and that became a world he thrived in and still does (he's close friends with many local musicians, such as saxophonists Faruq Z. Bey and Skeeter Shelton).

In the late '70s and early '80s, Pitts began creating found object installations, taking them on the road with him to use during performances and poetry readings. He also didn't have a functioning studio back then, so creating larger wall works was at that time out of the question. "I used to drive around a lot, and I had my sons with me, and we'd stop to shoot pictures of these abandoned automobiles, putting whatever was around into the shot, and letting the kids draw on the cars." Pitts got back into collage when he ran into his close high school friend, Detroit painter Alie McGee, and they shared a working space near Motown's old studio on Davison and Wilkins. For the first time, his work benefited from the room to breathe.

Johanson Charles is like a freaking meat locker. Spending some time there you realize what it's like to be an artist suffering in a cold and drafty studio. The cold tests not just your fine motor skills, but your faith. It means something to layer up for a day's work, and this gives you, any artist who does it, an edge. At the gallery, Pitts is taking a break, sitting in front of a space heater watching a small screen television broadcasting a soccer match, a game he loves for the strategy.

He fell in love with the sport in Africa. Pitts has been to the Canary Islands, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana, for months at a time. But he still remembers his first trip to Dakar, Senegal, in 1985, when he was on the exhibition committee for the first international exhibition of the NCA.

"I took my bike with me, and the artists who came said, 'Yeah, Ibn's got his bike here, man!' Everyone wanted to ride it because it gave you a means of transportation on your own. You could just pedal down the street, to the villages. Plus I've always been an avid runner, so I was running in the early hours of the morning, for four hours or so, out to the villages, to the countryside. All the villages were wonderful. I just enjoyed the way they accepted you, especially because you had made an attempt."

He had the same experience a few years later, when he went to Nigeria for a festival showcasing the work of filmmakers, artists, poets and dancers. "I got so frustrated that my camera messed up and I couldn't take pictures. But I was so overwhelmed by the performers, that I got caught up with the dance motion, the style, and the next day there was a picture of me dancing in the paper. So when I was running, people would come up to me, the children, and say, 'I saw you, I saw you in the paper, I saw you!'

Dread incises much of contemporary art, from the Brooklyn Museum's haunting exhibit of looming life-like pedestrians to a recent local show of modeled dead and wounded endangered animals. Such shows are drastic and provocative, but it's also a pleasure to see the brightness in Pitts' work, especially right now. In his installations, the mirror, an object in African art that symbolizes identity and self-reflection, is decorated with symbols, such as the all-seeing eye. A web of shredded paper surrounding a totem looks like the long raffia fibers used in making hats and textiles.

"I've had a very wonderful experience in life, it's incorporated itself as an influence. At first my statements in my work were monochromatic." You don't need to view several works to see his evolution as an artist, just one. "Incarnation Seriez, Snake Charmerz # 280" is a high-contrast black-and-white print with subtle color. He dates the piece twice — 1986 and 1993 — once for when it was first completed, and later for when he added colorful markings. Other collages feature postage stamps that he picked up from the floor while working as a U.S. postal worker.

The pieces may be bright, but they're not "happy." Sharp and jagged shapes collide in crayon and paint, and he gouges out edges of these abstractions like white lightning in a cloud of thick, mixed hues. It's not a serene and stable expression, but one that reflects his courageous hopefulness.

Former Detroit News critic Joy Hakanson Colby wrote about a four-piece mural Pitts made for Detroit's Orchestra Hall back in 2000, conserving eight decades of music history, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and others who played at the hall when it was known as the Paradise Theatre, between 1941 and 1951. She wrote, "Pitts understands the dreams of a young boy, as well as the dreams of a man." Like a child but far from naive, he doesn't distinguish between himself and his ideas — he's at the point where he converses casually in long prose-poems and gets so excited to talk about the universe that he moves in toward you like a quick and cool wind.

"The universe is expanding; it's not inhibited by doom. The next generation is going to take us even further, toward change and understanding. Your culture, everyone's culture, has something to contribute." He says this, as he references his final piece, a large sign posted high on the wall that reads "African Burial Groundz," written in swift and strong calligraphy with paint black as dirt.

The African Burial Ground Monument in New York City's lower Manhattan recognizes the remains of several hundred 17th and 18th century Africans buried under what is now Wall Street, but Pitts explains that there are many unknown sites, on plantations and elsewhere, that have yet to receive recognition. "Our culture needs to know about them so we can go on," he says. That's why several installations feature footsteps outlined by pistachio shells like traces in the sand. It's a spot for visitors to reflect and respect where others have stood.

His creative life is not his only success; he must have done well by his own children. His son Khalid is a lobbyist living in Washington, D.C. Visiting his dad over the holidays, Khalid appears to be such a clean-cut, good-looking and articulate young man. His other son, Ibn Jasari, is a Detroit public school teacher and basketball coach advocating, as so many do, for the city's children.

It may be bold to compare this man to one of his heroes, Malcolm X, but the comparison is worth considering. Malcolm X does have some killer, monster stories — to turn a Pitts phrase — but his autobiography is striking because his personal insights are reflections of a community. What's memorable, then, ironically enough, is that you actually forget who the author is; part of his story could be a fucked-up photocopy of any black man's city story.

Pitts' work is a vivid expression, his communal sense of self. His art fits within a longstanding tradition of autobiography in African-American arts, in which self-portraiture is less the vain attempt that Euros perform (serious-looking artist with piercing gaze) and more a picture of a community. In other words, his recent exhibition was no solo show. Art made by these two hands is guided by generations, and that's the best kind of collaboration.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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