It is always difficult to stay objective about someone dear to one’s heart, and in Antje Beyen’s case, even more so because while her art is so transparent and folksy, her persona is relatively murky and difficult to grasp. Antje is a living example of how art closes its creater to an inner circle rarely allowing more than a peek by lucky intruders.
A superb photographer, deft and delicate filmmaker, and creative graphic designer, Antje is by now a well-known name to many Iranians who have heard or seen her documentary about women and arts in Iran called Feminine Breeze. Her website, beyen.net, has a good collection of her works free of charge, including her incredible photo calendars — in Africa, Tibet, and Sahara, displaying without ambiguity the text of Antje’s unspoken existentialism.
Existentialism, as understood by Camus, more than Sartre or Heidegger or any one else, for Antje’s work reminds me of Camus first and foremost, as she has a distinct and unsentimentally disinterested eye for the human soul grappling with its perpetual loneliness, and existentialism as in the circle of faithful, be it the Tibetian monks or the Imam worshippers in Meshhed, exuding what the late Paul Piccone would call organic.
What better sample of Antje’s artistic, quasi-philosophic existentialism, than her tsunami photo essay, which has appeared in the UN Chronicle, a rare and jewel of six colorful pages of human survival in the midst of mega tragedy, of life and nothing but. Antje selected 16 photos from over 4000 which she took for this assignment, an arduous selection process lasting longer than her trip — to Indonesia, Thailand, and other Indian ocean islands hit by the tsunami that took so many lives.
One of her photos shows a lone building in a sea of destruction, a hospital, one of the few surviving buildings, and next to it a mass grave for the patients, nurses and doctors who all perished. It is a chilling, paradoxical photograph, so beautiful, with the refraction of blue sky on the ditches replacing former homes surrounding the shattered building. “There is beauty even in death,” Antje once told me, and I wondered if she ever saw ugliness in anything or any one?
Perhaps not, because Antje grew up “with thieves and gangsters” in her own words, since she often accompanied her mother, a social worker, to the shady neighborhoods where poverty and yet resilience for survival reigned supreme. As a result, Antje grew completely fearless, so much so that she once treked across black Africa in a rented toyota, sleeping outdoor in her little tent at night. One photo I have of her car and her tent in the middle of a desert, so typical of her. Or take her story of her repeated visits to Tibet, where more than once she was dropped off miles from a temple and had to hike for a day and a half to get there, to the amazement of monks who wondered how she managed through the tiger infested valley!
Or take Antje’s two months long stay with the mostly naked Himbe tribe in Namibia, where she recorded on film the last waning days of the tribe before it perished by the forced reolcation caused by a built dam. Her film is truly amazing, showing Antje’s keen attention to the minutest details, and her vivid capture of sexual division of labor in the tribe. Her other film, the Tibet Symphony, has won praise by the Tibetians and criticisms by the western audience, who dislike her use of a fast-paced western music in place of narrative, thus missing Antje’s unique ability to put her own spin on a life style remote from her own universe. A self-declared “ambassador between cultures,” Antje lives and breathes the cultural and artistic differences, with her tiny apartment a small museum of cultural artefacts from some 60 countries.
Born from a Belgian father and a German mother, Antje grew up in the small town of Essen, Germany, where she went to a catholic school and then a renowned arts college, and did her thesis on the slums in Bombay, where she stayed for six months and took pictures of a European artist teaching art survival to the slum children. Antje then took her cause with the inmates in Essen prison and organized an exhibition of works by the inmates, the first of such endeavors in Essen ever.
Living in Margarethenhohe, a tight-knit village community on the edge of town, Antje has a beautiful small garden featuring trees from some 40 countries. She has spent practically half her income on those trees, a wonderful united nations of trees finely arranged in symmetry with each other. A vegeterian all her adult life, Antje is also an avid yoga specialist who spends no less than two hours a day practicing yoga. Immensely interested in Buddhism, she has a small collection of Bhuddist literature and often attends a temple run by her close friend, Bettina, in nearby Dusseldorf. Antje’s spirituality is somewhat secular, and her taste in Bhuddism has prepared her for suffering in life.
In fact, suffering’s exalted well means only yet another aspect of ordinary life for Antje. She told me the story of how she ended up outside Kashan in the middle of no where once, after her taxi driver couldn’t find the cheap hotel she had booked, and I asked her what did she do? She said that she sat on her suitcase until morning arrived and then took photos of the sun rise overlooking the fields until a tractor showed up and gave her a lift to town. Again, no trace of fear or concern, only of a patient soul taking life as it comes, and recording it for eternity with her keen eyes, staring as if excavating at souls and other tangible and intangibles of our existence, and recording them with her cameras for eternity.
Visit site for Beyen’s Feminine Breeze
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