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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 26, 2003

Akaji succeeded on his own terms

By Victoria Gail-White
Advertiser Art Critic

 •  Bumpei Akaji Memorial Exhibit

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, through Feb. 14

Koa Gallery, Kapi'olani Community College


"Bumpei was an irreverent person. He had an opinion on everything," said Walter Dods, chairman and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, at the opening of the Bumpei Akaji Memorial Exhibit at the Koa Gallery. "There were no holds barred on any subject. It was all fair game to him. But underneath it all, he was a pussycat."

In a "great hospitable gesture," as Koa Gallery curator David Behlke called it, Akaji finally agreed to be the 10th recipient of the Koa Artist Award. The award honors outstanding artists who not only contribute but also help define art in Hawai'i.

Most artists would have jumped at the chance to be honored in such a way, but not Akaji.

"On numerous occasions I asked Bumpei to participate in various shows at the academy," wrote former Honolulu Academy of Art director George Ellis in the exhibit pamphlet. "His first answer was always 'No,' but after some cajoling and talking story, he would eventually agree to show his works. At least on one occasion, his willingness to participate was prompted by the gift of a pound of prosciutto and a bottle of chianti, tastes learned in Italy and never forgotten."

The result was Akaji's participation in a "Legends" exhibit at the Academy of Arts.

Unfortunately, Akaji's death on Oct. 27 at age 81 transformed this award exhibit into a memorial exhibit. The award will be given to his wife, Toyoko, and their four children. This is appropriate, because his family supported him throughout his tumultuous art career.

"The fact that Bumpei had agreed before his death to have his works shown at Kapi'olani Community College is a remarkable achievement for David Behlke," wrote Ellis.

Akaji was a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. "What was amazing about Bumpei was that he got out of the war," says Dods, "and decided to become an artist — with all the heartaches, pain and suffering that went along with it. He had many hard times."

As a Fulbright scholar, Akaji studied art in Italy, where he had fought during the war. He studied in Florence, Milan and Ravenna, where he learned the classic art of mosaic, one of the oldest and most durable forms of mural decoration.

"In a return visit to Ravenna in 1975," his friend and longtime attorney James Koshiba said, "we were amazed to find his teacher still there at the same school, 91 years of age and remarried to a beautiful 40-year-old wife!"

Akaji's studies led him back home to the Islands, where he obtained one of the first Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

The 34 works on exhibit, including sculptures and a large painting, extend over 50 years of the artist's life. Narratives beside the pieces explain when some were constructed and reconstructed. Akaji was known for recycling and transforming his sculptural works.

His eye must have traveled the surfaces like a roller coaster and delighted in the excitement of the forms born of his hands. Laborious works, made with steel and welding rods, copper, brass and chemicals, heat and welding, burning and pounding, were part of his creative world.

His sculptural compositions are alluring and mysterious, possessing both modern attributes and primitive characteristics. Influences of Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee appear, as well as those of ancient Hawaiian, Celtic, Japanese and Native American cultures. Akaji reduced the forms to their essence and rendered them recognizable as abstract totems celebrating creation.

For all his contradictory behavior, judging from this representational exhibit of his artwork, Akaji evidently was a covert optimist. According to Behlke, he also was an early riser, philosopher, wordsmith, survivor of war, painter, sculptor and fisherman.

He was active in the community, teaching young people at Kuhio Park and influencing legislator Barbara Muramoto to lobby to safeguard a fishing spot on Kaua'i, his birthplace.

"He believed in the spirit of the sculpture and wasn't moved to sell art," said Koshiba at the opening ceremony. "He was the most undiplomatically honest, unpretentious, most straightforward, self-effacing and humble man. He had a gruff exterior, but he was selfless inside.

"He would say, 'It's easy to do things people like rather then things that come from yourself,' " Koshiba said. "But Bumpei always just did what he wanted to do. He never tried to please anybody. He really didn't want to sell his work to someone he didn't feel should have it. I saw him refuse to sell his work many times."

Yet he managed to make a living as an artist. Large commissioned works such as "Brothers of Valour" at Fort DeRussy, "Na Manu Nu Oli" at the 1000 Bishop Building and "The Eternal Flame" on Beretania Street, opposite the Capitol, fueled his creative endeavors.

Akaji's maquettes (which he called, according to Behlke, his "sketches" for larger sculptures) rest in a case that was built especially for this exhibit. The reflected light and shadows cast from these pieces are poignant. Behlke also included one of Akaji's works in progress to illustrate his approach to his medium. In it, brazing rods form an armature for copper sections that are held in place with vice grips, ready to be soldered on.

I would like to include titles for these pieces in my descriptions of them, but all are untitled. Akaji believed the owners should title the pieces, considering that they had to live with them.

There are certain characteristics that echo from viewing the exhibit. Akaji was classically trained. A clay sculpture of an Italian woman and a bronze bust attests to that. He enjoyed experimentation and variety, as seen in a large central copper sculpture that was sanded and varnished to refract the light, and a bust made of soldered welding rods.

The only painting in the show, a tour de force done in 1958, is an oils on vinyl. It is a perfect representation of a pivotal point in Akaji's growth as an artist because it clearly identifies, in its choice of colors and palette-knife application, the direction he would later take with the fluidity and patinas of copper sheeting.

The textures in Akaji's single-sheet copper wall paintings are rich and luscious, yet we aren't sure what we are viewing. Amorphous shapes emerge like hot clouds from the textures and colors created with heat, Hawaiian salt and chemicals. He always worked his metal wall pieces from the back. Some of them look as if they would burn your hands if you touched them, and some are cool and soft looking, with baby blue patinas evocative of molded hand-made paper. He also has work of soldered copper pieces welded with brass from the front. One can almost hear the hiss of Akaji's torch and his incessant pounding resonating in the gallery. His spirit lives on.

Behlke and students Tricia Izuno, Dina Schneider and Paul Staub of the college have installed a truly memorable show. Staub also videotaped the opening ceremony for the memorial exhibit, which can be viewed on request by phoning the gallery in advance.

Behlke, who befriended Akaji late in life, asked him, "What was the best thing about your life?" Akaji replied, "Being broke. I never knew how I was going to survive from one day to the next, but somehow I managed."