Wherever she goes, Yuna Agostinelli captures the essence of a place through art. Whether it’s photography, drawing, painting, or even playing a song on her ukulele, she is able to impart emotion, beauty, and meaning. Although she has traveled the globe, her home, Korea, has been a central theme of her work. Her most recent endeavor has been presenting the “Mermaids of Korea.” Yuna can observe her latest subjects from her apartment window as they fish at the ocean’s shore.
Although new to Jeju, being Korean, Yuna has always understood that there is a different culture on Jeju Island. The women of Jeju have a reputation for being particularly strong-willed. Various anecdotes have emerged as to why this is the case. One explanation is that Confucian values were never instilled as deeply on the island as they were in the mainland. The islanders tend to be more rebellious and liberated.
One definitive reason the women of Jeju are known as “strong” is because of the Haenyo divers. The Haenyo are women who dive up to 20 meters without oxygen tanks to collect octopus, shellfish, and seaweed from the ocean floor. They then sell the fresh fish along the shore. Plates of the daily catch sell for about $50 each, and are considered a delicacy. Starting as young children, the women have conditioned their hearts and lungs to sustain the deep dives and hold their breath for lengthy periods of time while they collect fish.
At times, the Haenyo were the economic driving force in Jeju, giving women on the island more power. Although never formally recognized, their work was vital to the survival of the island for years. Despite their power, they still lived in a male-dominated society, and often had to fight to keep control of their profession.
Today, the Haenyo are a fading phenomenon. There are other more lucrative professions and opportunities for women, and other, more modern ways to collect shellfish.
Many people in Jeju would like to see the tradition of the Haenyo continue, however, the Haenyo themselves do not agree. The job is dangerous, with the chance of death each time they dive. Repeated diving increases chances for strokes, aneurisms, and drowning. The Haenyo would rather see their daughters go to college and attain safer careers. According to a CNN article, there were over 30,000 divers in 1960, and now there are less than 5,000. Of the Haenyo who are left, most of them are above the age of 40.
Yuna Agostinelli’s mother was a Haenyo for a few years while she lived on an island between Jeju and Korea’s mainland. Perhaps this is one reason she was motivated to depict the Haenyo divers through her art. Yuna is inspired to create meaningful art, and she explained that
When people look at my work, I hope it inspires them to remember things that have been forgotten, and the significant impact of those things on our world. I hope my work will cause people to think and even pray about disappearing aspects of society.
Yuna does not only depict the strength of women through her art, she also lives the same values of independence and strength through her decision to become an artist in such a competitive and business oriented culture. Luckily for the preservation of the Korean culture, Yuna is not the only one. Yuna sells her hand-painted and handmade goods at cafe “Space What” on Jeju Island. In addition to being a cafe, “Space What” is a place for local artists to collaborate and display art that represents Jeju Island.
The work being done by Yuna and others like her is important for Korea, specifically Korean women. Korea ranks closely to Africa and the Middle East in terms of gender equity. Additionally, far too much of Korea’s culture has been lost through its history of war and the Saemaul Undong, a systematic approach toward improving the economy by consolidating villages into large cities and considering tradition to be superstition. (Read more about this in Part I & Part II of a previous Girls’ Globe post on Korean women). Yuna’s art is a reminder of how Korean women empowered themselves and symbolize strength. Her art will ensure that the Haenyo are not forgotten!
Please check out the “Space What” website!
If you would like to purchase an item of Haenyo art, you can contact Yuna directly through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Yuna and see more of her art, follow her blog!
* All photos are by the author.