Influential Detroit artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts honored with memorial

Beloved by the community, the artist and activist died in August

click to enlarge A room full of family and friends shared tears, roaring laughter, funny stories, and touching memories of Detroit artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts at Wayne County Community College. - Amber Ogden
Amber Ogden
A room full of family and friends shared tears, roaring laughter, funny stories, and touching memories of Detroit artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts at Wayne County Community College.

On Saturday at Detroit’s Wayne County Community College, a jubilee and birthday celebration was held in honor of the late artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, who would have been 81 years old. The pillar of the community declared by Metro Times as “Artist of the Year” in 2007 died on Aug. 13.

A room full of family and friends shared tears, roaring laughter, funny stories, and touching memories of Pitts. But most of all, a celebration was had.

Pitts’s legacy lives on through his two sons, Khalid Pori and Ibn Pori Jr. His sons reminisced about their car rides with their father to and from school, listening to talk radio and jazz, which both still do today. They also remember their father working two to three jobs at a time, but say they never went without.

“There is not another person who has as much impact in as many different facets and ways as my dad did,” Khalid said. “We learned we had to share our dad very early on. We had to share him with our mom, his art, and we had to share him with the community.”

He added, “He was the best father anyone could ever have. He taught me everything I know.”

The youngest of the two, Ibn Pori Jr., talked about how having his father’s name impacted him. “Growing up as his son, I thought it was more difficult than my older brother because I had his name,” he said. “As I grew older and saw his impact in the community and this world, I think it put more pressure on me to live up to the name.”

A history teacher at Cass Technical High School, the same high school his father graduated from in 1959, Ibn Jr. said that he will launch an art scholarship in his father’s honor to continue his artistic legacy.

“You can't change the world if you are not in it to change it,” Khaldi said his father would often say. Pitts’s sons said that their father was so driven by change that the Detroit City Council awarded him with a proclamation for helping to pass Juneteenth as a recognized holiday in the city.

“I don’t think people knew enough about my dad and how great he was, and he didn’t get his just due,” Khalid said. “My dad never cared about the attention, [he] just loved on people.”

“I’ve known Ibn since 1968, and he was the first communist I’d ever met, and I fell in love,” said Bey, a long-time friend and poet. “He was a real revolutionary.”

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Pitts inspired and motivated everyone he touched throughout his life, and his political reach stretched far beyond himself. In the ’60s, Pitts led the Black Cultural Arts and Black Labor Movement. He was also a member and plant leader of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Marsha Philpot, a writer and poet also known as Marsha Music, shared how Pitts was solely responsible for introducing her to the labor union, which led to her becoming the first, youngest Black woman president of a major labor union in Detroit. “I am eternally grateful for his influence in my life, and as he tried to bring culture into the work ethic of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, I thank him,” Philpot said.

As an artist, Pitts was known for his found object installations, as well as collage and printmaking work. In 2007, Metro Times arts editor Rebecca Mazzei wrote that 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.”

click to enlarge Some of Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts's visual art on display at Wayne County Community College. - Amber Ogden
Amber Ogden
Some of Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts's visual art on display at Wayne County Community College.

During the celebration, there were performances by African drummers, a cellist, dancers, and poets. Wayne State University professor Dr. Melba Boyd called Pitts “an extraordinary, multi-talented artist based in Detroit.”

“He created works that elevated the spirit of the citizens and that contributed to a rich legacy of innovators who used their creative gifts to uplift and beautify our city,” Boyd said. “But more importantly, he was a loving person who gave more to this world than he took from it. And what he took, he transformed for the better.”

Eleanor K, Nubia Kia, and Sadiq Bey also performed spoken-word poetry of Pitts’s with a live jazz band. “I’ve known Ibn since 1968, and he was the first communist I’d ever met, and I fell in love,” said Bey, a long-time friend and poet. “He was a real revolutionary.”

As family and friends reflected on the good times, they also shared funny stories. When Pitts needed to sleep, they said, he would simply get it whenever and wherever he could. Maureen Taylor, state chairperson of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, told a humorous story about pulling up next to Pitts in her car and seeing him sleep at the wheel at a red light. “He would say, ‘Hey Mo.’ I would say, ‘Ibn, pull over, I’ll take you where you’re going.’ And he would say, ‘Oh no, I’m alright,’ and he would take off.” Taylor said she would see him at the next light, asleep again.

“We will never again have an Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts in our lives,” Taylor said.

click to enlarge Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts's memorial included a poetry reading. - Amber Ogden
Amber Ogden
Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts's memorial included a poetry reading.

Boyd read the following poem about Pitts, “Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts: Encrypted in Tempered Shadows”:

Peace begins
with release.
despite madness
surrounding
distorted thoughts
corrupted by need,
or crushed beneath grief,
trapped and suffering,
Ibn catches our breath,
takes it inside,
into eclectic imagery,
into phonic sounds
or jazz phrasing,
scaling inner space,
and remakes us.
Multi-artist,
poet, painter,
and musician,
Ibn sees beyond
temporal space.
He traverses
urban terrains,
reshapes tragic
shadows,
untangles knots,
clotting brains,
swallows ugly
truths whole,
digests and
transforms this
into transcendent,
translucent light.

Ogun artist,
cultural warrior,
turning us inside out,
re-envisioning us
in the next life,
encrypted in
tempered shadows
aligned with his heart.

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About The Author

Amber Ogden

Amber Ogden is a Detroit native that eats, breathes, and sleeps in the city. She is so Detroit that she is even a die-hard Lions fan — don't judge. She has published work in multiple publications such as Forbes, Chevy in the D, Model D, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and BASIC Magazine. In her free time, she...
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