Lost at sea
One of my favourite installations is Ama, a blown-glass work inspired by, and paying homage to, the pearl-diving women of Japan. The piece, the work of Cyrpiot-born and London-based designer Michael Anastassiades in collaboration with Italian design house Flos, is made up of mouth-blown opaline spheres and brass. Laid out as a larger-than-life pearl necklace, resting in the dark on the floor of room 118 of the British Gallery, it glows and draws you in.
The V&A gives an evocative description:
“The simple, even primitive beauty of these women who harvested seaweed, turban shells and abalone from beneath the coastal waters can be tracked 2000 years back in history, as recorded in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry. Only equipped with visual acuity, lung capacity and a hunter’s instinct, Ama women would dive some 30 feet down in cold water, confronting minus zero conditions at times and only wearing a loincloth, in search of the goods lying on the ocean bed.”
I got a bit lost myself when, after seeing this beautifully mysterious installation, I did a bit of research on the Ama. Why had I never heard of them before? I discovered a blog post about the Ama, with photographs, that tells more about this community. They continue today as an example of sustainable fishing and a model of women earning an independent living. They dive up to 25 metres, for 4 hours a day, without oxygen tanks. When they surface they make a soft whistling sound, known as ‘Isobue’, to expel the breath they’ve been holding for up to 2 minutes at a time. Most are older women who have carried out this work for many years; according to the Gakuran blog, one woman continues to dive well into her 90s.
I also found an article with this description of the life of the Ama women during diving season, which:
“revolves around the ama hut, or amagoya. This is the place where the divers gather in the mornings to prepare for the day, eating, chatting and checking their equipment. After diving they return to the hut to shower, rest and warm their bodies to recover from their day’s work. The atmosphere in the hut is one of relaxation and camaraderie, for six months of the year the women are free from the usual familial and social duties they are expected to perform, and they are able to connect with other women who share their love of the ocean and diving. In the past, when career opportunities for women in a small village were limited and married women were expected to stay at home under the watchful eye of their mother in law, life as an ama must have been an attractive prospect despite the tough conditions and potential dangers.”
But the culture appears to be fading out, and the work no longer presents the unique opportunity it once did for women to earn a lucrative independent income. Partly that’s down to changes in the ocean environment; although the Ama introduced rules, including limits to diving time, to protect the ocean’s ecosystem and avoid over-fishing, pollution has reduced the growth of abalone. And as women’s career prospects have improved in the past 60 or so years, the draw of pearl diving has declined.
“Many of the divers active today are in their 50s and 60s, with very few ama aged in their 20s and 30s. The work of the ama seems to be a unique opportunity for Japanese women to engage in competitive, exciting, potentially lucrative work that provides a great amount of freedom and independence but at the same time allows women to be part of a tight-knit group of fellow enthusiasts that life as a housewife would not have afforded. In previous generations this was very rare and would explain why the job was attractive despite the harsh conditions and potential danger.”
The Ama fascinate both in their mythical image as modern-day mermaids and the pragmatic feminism of economic independence. It’s interesting that at the V&A we just had a very successful exhibit on pearls, but I don’t remember the ’pearl-diving mermaids’ featuring largely in that. Anastassiades has created a moving tribute – hopefully one that will prompt visitors to learn more about these divers and their culture.