[Editor’s Note: Intisar Abioto wasn’t born in the Northwest, but her artistic, cultural and grassroots work in Portland have garnered attention from major news sources including OPB, The Oregonian, and even Al-Jazeera (though the article has since been deleted.) But she does not work alone, we found. In fact, there is an entire clan of amazing Abiotos. WOHM’s Saidah Ali Wilson sat down with a few of the ladies for tea. This is installment 1 of 2.]

If there’s one thing that might drive you CRAZY about the Abiotos, it’s that come hell or high water, you are NOT going to put them in a box. If you ask Intisar, Kalimah, Hanifah, or Amenta Abioto what they “do” or what they “call themselves,” they kind of look at you like you’re crazy and say, “Um, people?”

When pressed, Intisar explains, “I guess… I guess, we’re artists. But we’re more than artists. We’re thinkers, students, creators, explorers and adventurers.”

Watching these women work is fascinating. Their creative energy is a deluge.

At their recent New Year’s party, The Blackest Night (which was 100% crowd sourced in 72 hours), they played the role of emcees, sang, rapped, danced, told jokes, looped, managed guest performers and photographed the whole thing. Oh, and they had drinks, talked, and made introductions, too.

Afterwards, many guests noted that it was the most community they’d experienced in Portland, possibly ever, which is kind of an Abioto trademark. They smile at strangers, say hello to random passersby, and engage everyone. Their energy just seems to draw people in.

The Abioto family came to Portland in 2010. When they left their home in Memphis, their plan was to start a vegan catering business somewhere on the Left Coast. Kalimah, Amenta, Hanifah, and their mother, Wanda, had been in California for a few days when a small earthquake shook them up and changed their minds.

“We’d had a long day, and we were really tired and my mom… she wasn’t cool with that,” Hanifah laughs. “The next day, we booked a flight to Portland.”

Intisar and teenage sister, Aisha, joined them shortly thereafter, and the four eldest girls promptly got to work turning the Portland arts scene upside down.  I met Intisar Abioto last year, after my partner wrote the first news story about The Black Portlanders. The Black Portlanders is a photoblog curated by Intisar (with some signature Abioto-family support) to document the faces of the ever-shrinking Black community in Portland.

While Intisar is most known in Oregon for her photojournalism, she really considers photography a developing skill. She primarily considers herself a dancer, storyteller, and writer. She does improvisational and choreographed dances performances at a variety of venues and also performs BookDances, a service where clients commission her to turn “any written or spoken book, text, or idea into custom live movement and performance.”

Sincere, earnest, imaginative, and thoughtful, she begins almost every introduction the same way.

“I, I, I’m…” she closes her eyes in concentration for a brief moment, opens them and says, “I’m Intisar.”

The lingering remnant of a childhood speech impediment has almost become her signature. Most Portlanders’ first contact with this creative family is when Intisar stops them on the street and asks, “Can I take your picture? Where are you from?” And that’s it. Once you’ve met her, you’ll see her everywhere, and eventually, you’ll probably get invited to something she’s doing.

Then there’s Amenta. Amenta is a people-person, through and through. If you don’t talk to her, don’t worry; she’ll talk to you. Direct, outgoing, energetic and almost always unedited, Amenta has a personality as big as her singing voice. Appropriately, her infectious energy follows her onto stages and in front of cameras. The first time I met Amenta was at a Holy Mojo event, the Abioto family’s interactive spiritual performance. She sang with a loop pedal, creating, on the spot, an emotional, enveloping, ethereal, musical experience.

Amenta Abioto & Mother, Wanda (Cover photo: Intisar Abioto)
Amenta Abioto & Mother, Wanda
(Cover photo: Intisar Abioto)

Amenta has released one self-titled EP, “Amenta Abioto,” and an album, “Opening Flower Hymns.” She performs shows in Portland and around the country, sometimes rock pieces, sometimes her mystical improvisations, sometimes story-telling songs, weaving blues, jazz, hip hop, gospel and traditional African beats.  When I asked her what she’s working on these days, she gave me the quintessential Abioto response, “Oh, you know. A lot of things.”

After some prodding, she divulges that she’s been in the studio quite a bit, working on new songs, which will hopefully result in new singles sometime this year. She also revealed that she’s been recording a “pop music project” with an unspecified group. “I’m playing Lady Gaga,” she told me gleefully.

Did I mention that she’s also a writer, model and actress? “You can hire me to do anything!” She told me. “I’m always interested in new and interesting projects.”

That’s another Abioto trait. They’re always interested in new and interesting projects. If someone is doing something they think is cool, they’re quick to express interest and get involved. If you do something they think is cool, eventually, you’re probably going to collaborate with them.