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Exhibition visit: Haenyeo, Women of the Sea, at National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich, played host to an exhibition featuring South Korea’s latest inclusion in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Haenyeo: Hyung S Kim

Life-size photographs of Jeju’s famous diving women were dotted around a building which began life in 1807 as a school for the children of British seafarers. Images of women whose only technology is a wet-suit, diving goggles and maybe a knife or metal hook were housed in a building celebrating the naval know-how on which the British Empire was built. And stone statues of British naval admirals, men in the prime of their lives, looked down on the ageing, wrinkled forms of the Korean women.

Installation view

But the diving women did not seem perturbed. Viewed from across the museum’s upper level known as the Great Map, the row of divers in their wetsuits looked like a menacing squad of marauding marines emerging from the waves.

Haenyeo: Hyung S Kim

Up close, the women look more approachable, but of course each one is an individual: world-weary, comical, beautiful, wise, gentle, proud, stern, loving – like the infinite variety of humanity out there.

Hyung S Kim has captured them standing against a plain white background, soon after they have finished their exhausting session harvesting seafood from the ocean floor. Some of them stand awkwardly, others naturally or with hips at a jaunty angle. Some of them wear a colourful top over their wetsuits, maybe to aid identification under water, or maybe just because they feel like it.

Mikhail Karikis, whose film and sound installation was played on the opening day, had paid tribute to the divers’ prodigious lung capacity. He had tried to paint watercolour portraits of the women while holding his breath. Needless to say, the sketches are by no means perfect or finished, but they capture the women’s facial expressions rather well.


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