CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Toyoko Akaji and her children are hosting an exhibition of her late husband Bumpei Akaji's art. Behind her is one of his works.
Akaji had no desire for fame or fortune
If not for the dozens of monumental commissioned sculptures by Bumpei Akaji standing throughout Honolulu, the general public would have had few opportunities to view the artist's work while he was alive. When it came to art shows, publicity and marketing himself -- staples of today's art-as-commerce machinery -- he was just saying no long before that idea became an anti-vice slogan. For Akaji, it seemed, commercialization was antithetical to the creation of art -- even a hint of profit motive would taint the entire endeavor.
Works by Bumpei Akaji
On view: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays through March 18. Opening reception, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow.
Place: Satoru's Art Gallery, 888 N. King St., Suite 3
Only since Akaji's death on Oct. 27, 2002, have his smaller works and wall panels emerged from his studio and storage to be shown formally, beginning with a retrospective at Kapiolani Community College's Koa Gallery in 2003, a show he had agreed to but did not live long enough to see. An exhibition at the Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center followed in 2004, and another will open at Satoru's Art Gallery tomorrow. The show and sale includes wall panels, sculptures and maquettes dating from the 1970s to the time of his death.
As spokeswoman for the family, Akaji's daughter Esta Akaji-Nerney, one of his four children, said, "We wanted to do something every year."
It's their way of showing their pride in their father's work and keeping his memory alive. Akaji might have wished only for his art to speak for him, but the reality of the 21st century is that few have the patience to listen.
Had he been alive to see this show, Akaji might have shown up at the opening out of respect for fellow artist Satoru Abe, but according to James Koshiba, an attorney who met Akaji in 1970 and became a lifelong friend, Akaji "never went for showing stuff. He never went to shows, never dressed up, never went to award shows. He would not be doing this show, he would not be giving an interview.
"He was an extremely modest person, one of the humblest people I knew, although some people might not think so," Koshiba said. "He could be rude, but what struck me about him was that he was the most honest person I ever met. He told you exactly how he felt. There was no BS, no editing, for sure."
Akaji's wife, Toyoko, for one, met her future husband after he had returned from art studies in Italy and remembered thinking he was arrogant. She said she only agreed to other dates because her best friend was dating one of his friends.
Others would have remembered getting the brush-off.
"People from the Academy of Art, galleries, museums, university would all come to talk to him, ask him to do a show, be in books; if you look at the two volumes of 'Artists of Hawaii,' Bumpei isn't there, but it's not because he wasn't asked. He was asked," Koshiba said. "It's just that he was into art and not into commercializing it."
COURTESY OF AKAJI FAMILY
Artist Bumpei Akaji was more comfortable in his studio or fishing than attending art exhibitions and marketing himself.
AKAJI, BORN in 1921, was one of a small group of Japanese-American artists from Hawaii who came of age during World War II and, after serving in the military, were able to return home and study art abroad on the GI Bill.
"In those days, who bought? Who had money? Aside from being ostracized for doing something no one else was doing, these guys really struggled, and there were a number of people who were not art collectors, who just wanted to help," Koshiba said.
Although Akaji had studied oil, fresco, sculpture and mosaic in Italy, in 1951 he and Abe received a gift of a box of metal rods, which started his lifelong focus on metal sculpture and metal relief using copper and bronze.
"He was unique. I don't think anybody did this kind of work before him or while he was alive, and I don't think anybody's doing it now," Koshiba said. "I don't think anybody can do it."
Koshiba often found himself in the uncomfortable position of negotiating commissions or sales on Akaji's behalf. "He was loath to sell. I never saw him want to sell. The state (Foundation on Culture and the Arts) did come to him a lot and commissioned larger pieces.
"A lot of the time we had to negotiate for him because he was loath to get into that kind of thing. Prices would be negotiated, and we would go to him and he would just say, 'OK, fine.'
"If you were a friend or somebody who befriended him, he was more likely to give (the artwork) to the person or make it real cheap. Sometimes that made it hard because it put a burden on his friends. We didn't want people to take advantage of him."
Akaji created several mosaics at local schools, donating his time and materials for projects that would involve hands-on work by students to give them early exposure to art. Shoppers at Ala Moana Center can also see one of his works fronting Bebe's, and a monument he created at Fort DeRussy in 1998 honors his fellow 442nd war veterans. Numerous works can also be seen at the East-West Center and other public buildings.
One of Akaji's first commissions was a mosaic panel on one of Matson's passenger ships, the Mariposa, while it was being outfitted in Seattle.
"He had the commission, but he knew the other artists were struggling so he told them, 'Come up and help me,'" Koshiba said. "That's the kind of person he was. If you were a stranger and called him up, he'd say, 'Who are you? What do you want?' and then say, 'No thank you.' He used to do that to people, even customers. But if you were his friend, he would do anything for you."