Ali Akbar, who died earlier this month, was downtown's Puck, its mischievous muse and town crier at concerts, gallery openings, and anywhere else that our community congregated to celebrate creativity.
A crew of contract workers on a routine check at Cagle Terrace apartments on Sutherland Avenue, where Akbar lived throughout his years in Knoxville, found his body on Friday, Dec. 11. It would be five days before the University of Tennessee Medical Center published a two-sentence notice of the death of the 64-year-old, who was born Horace Pittman.
There was a spontaneous wake at the Longbranch Saloon after Akbar's death was reported. According to Eric Sublett, Akbar's partner in art crime with Knoxville's underground, "the whole place erupted into a loud and prolonged call, a musical shout of affirmation, of victory, of poetic license come loose, a call to come and join the poets of the land. We all knew the one that started that call around here, almost 28 years ago, was missing. Ali Akbar was missing."
Ali's exuberance disturbed those who couldn't recognize the beauty of his nonsensical bellowing and his crazed stop-and-start, careening-around way of dancing. His very existence was a work of art, true to the guerrilla aesthetic in which he reveled during his decades in Knoxville. His raw, wild, kinetic approach to his work produced masterpieces or piles of junk, depending on the observer. And, although the sartorially resplendent Ali might strut up to an event impeccably dressed, he frequently seemed to lose his pants. This development simultaneously escalated the outrage of the offended and signaled that the party was underway.
"Horace/Ali was the single most comfortable person in his own skin that I ever observed," says Knoxville writer/raconteur Steve Dupree. "It wasn't always comfortable for those around him, for one reason or another, but every time and everywhere I ever saw him, he was comfortable being the same Ali he ever was."
Horace Pittman turned up in Knoxville around the time of the 1982 World's Fair. His conversion to Islam soon afterwards resulted in the name change. This religious awakening might seem casual to those who noticed his enjoyment of life's pleasures. Perhaps he pursued his own brand of Sufism, the more laid-back offshoot of the Muslim faith, but he took some prohibitions seriously—sometimes. For sure, he never took offense when an infidel greeted him with a well-intentioned "asalaam alaykum ("peace be upon you"). He always replied formally, "wa 'alaykum as-salaam ("and upon you be peace").
While some thought Ali showed up here because of the World's Fair, he had extended family here. According to Jamie Minor, a cousin who still lives in Ali's hometown of Rock Hill, S.C., where the funeral was held on Saturday, Akbar was a veteran of the Vietnam war and was in the care of the Veteran's Administration, through which he obtained subsidized housing at Cagle Terrace. He took the bus or caught rides to get to the downtown shows and openings that he craved.
Minor says Akbar had several health problems and planned to eventually return to South Carolina, where he had family to take care of him. She believes the diabetes, which was discovered almost by accident when Akbar had a vision problem earlier this year, is the likely cause of death. She says he had probably not learned how to take care of the condition, which may have contributed to his death. No autopsy was performed.
Minor, de facto executor of Ali's artwork, says she'll make sure the works at his apartment are collected for a show—with opportunities for purchase—in Knoxville in the coming year.
A September road trip to Washington, D.C., with his close friend Bill McGowan turned out to be Akbar's final grand tour in this world. "He cut a swath through Washington," McGowan says. "Ali engaged everyone we passed within 10 feet of the whole trip. Rich, old, black, white. It didn't matter. It was astounding, watching him charming the women and jiving with everyone on the street. I've never seen anything like it.... Most of us see things through a filter. He didn't. He was absolutely alive. Man, I wish I could be that free."
"In the end he himself became the art, his life and his actions," says R.B. Morris, whose association with Akbar parallels Sublett's. "He had an illustrious and controversial history as an artist in Knoxville. He was a guerrilla artist in a movement that was quite influential in town during a pivotal time for the arts. He was a poet as well as a painter and at times a sculptor. William Blake said, ‘Exuberance is beauty,' and Ali embodied this like no other for many years, almost as an abiding angel over the scene."
My own personal experience with Ali runs back to those days when he first showed up as a nearly aggressive participant in the renaissance of music, poetry, and art that sprang up along Cumberland Avenue 30 years ago. When he wasn't moshing to punk bands, he was skanking to the quasi-reggae band I was in at the time, Cheap Shoes. He would shout the Rastafarian incantation—"Lord of Lords! King of Kings! Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah!"—as we played. More revealing is a retort he shot back at me when he sensed I was making fun of him for showing up with crepe paper and found objects stapled and glued to his clothing.
"Horace, what's this?" I asked, pointing at his motley garb.
"That's art," he snapped.
A wake will be held at the Longbranch Saloon on Cumberland Avenue on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at 7 p.m. Many of the local artists and musicians who loved and collaborated with Ali will appear, including Morris and Hector Qirko, who were already scheduled to perform that evening, Roger Smith, and Tim Lee, possibly with his band the Tim Lee 3, with others to be announced.