Females and female beauty are among the most beloved subjects of art in general in history. This was also the case in Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868) and for the images from ‘the floating world’ as displayed in their ukiyo-e art.
Bare Upper Bodies
A favorite sub-genre within the female subject, for Japanese artists at the time, was the ama (海人) diver (a. The method of collecting abalone without the use of masks (and certainly not diving suits!) had been practiced in Japan since ancient times. These graceful beauties with their bare upper bodies, red loincloths and striking hairstyles were always depicted in a way that betrayed the artist’s pleasure.
In their designs ama divers were often seen at work diving in the sea, looking for pearls, seaweed, shellfish, lobsters, octopus, and oysters that sometimes contain a pearl, but in some cases they were the subject of fantasy designs as in the famous prints of Hokusai and Utamaro.
The artist Shigenobu displays the ama diver and her lover in one of his beloved poses, with the woman sitting on the man’s lap and her legs in the air. The surrounding oysters and the bucket in the background emphasize her profession.
Surrounded by all kinds of marine animals (octopuses, carps, and a Puffer fish) a male and female ama diver make love at the bottom of a reef.
A charming scene with sensual undertones. We see four attractive ama divers during their work, diving for pearls at the sea shore. The girl standing, holds a knife (for opening oysters) between her teeth while wringing out her loincloth. The conditions are harsh as emphasized by the trembling girls sitting by the fire. In the composition, the tough girl who dives into the waves is nicely counterbalanced by the breaking waves on the rocks, at the right side of the design.
A beach scene with two ama divers having a sexual rollick. A basket containing shells is on the right; a few are scattered in the foreground. The ragged lines of the red cloth are reminiscent of the work of Katsushika Hokusai. This print was previously attributed to Keisai Eisen.
A striking koban-sized design with an ama diver, tied down to an anchor, is being raped by a male colleague.
Woman of the Sea
A spectacular triptych design depicting a pleasure boat with excited court ladies observing ama divers also known as ‘woman of the sea’ off the coast of Sagami Province. On the left, one of the divers is swimming through the gentle waves, a knife clenched between her teeth. From the rocky shore three divers watch their colleagues, a large basket of abalone standing nearby. The women on the ship amuse themselves with the spectacle, one of them leaning forward over the edge.
Chikanobu masterfully captures the variety of sea life visible just below the surface of the water, such as bream, manta ray and squid and its comic interaction with the ama divers. Three of the ama divers (in the middle panel) wrestle with an octopus whose clasping tentacles recall the erotic undertones of Hokusai’s monumental ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’‘. On the horizon Mount Fuji rises and the silhouette of a Dutch ship can be seen in the distance. Look for the striking detail on the left and middle panel of the squid shooting out a cloud of dark ink.
Famous left panel of the triptych by Toyokuni III (Kunisada) portraying an ama diver standing on a rock with a knife between her teeth, wringing out her loincloth, while a colleague is handing her an oyster. In the background a part of the well-known ‘Wedded Rocks’ is visible.
Yoshitoshi‘s triptych features Prince Genji observing ama divers at work on the rocky shore at Chigogafuchi on the island of Enoshima. On the left panel a fearless woman dives into the intimidating waves just after a fellow diver, who vanishes below the surf, only one of her feet visible above the water. The middle panel depicts two beautiful divers are having a break. One of them anxiously offers a large abalone shell to the young aristocrat, who is smiling back at her.
What is your favorite “ama diver” design? Leave your reaction in the comment box below…..!!