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Beer, June

Source:
Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography
Author(s):
Jennifer Carolina Gómez MenjívarJennifer Carolina Gómez Menjívar

Beer, June (1933–1986), artist, poet, and cultural activist, 

was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua, to a working-class family. The youngest of eleven children, she was a self-taught painter who began her career painting free portraits before becoming one of Nicaragua’s most renowned artists. Her paintings depicted the landscapes and people of that country’s Atlantic Coast, a historically marginalized region.

Beer is the only painter from Bluefields to have received national and international attention for her artwork. The city was a major port during the colonial period, when it was the capital of the British Protectorate of the Mosquito Coast. It was incorporated into Nicaragua in 1894, though it remained largely forgotten and ignored until the late twentieth century. Thus its primarily Afro-descendant and Afro-indigenous population remained economically and politically disenfranchised throughout its history. It was in this context that Beer raised four children as a single mother.

Beer began painting during a two-year stay in the United States. She worked at a dry-cleaning shop when she arrived in 1954, and later found work as a model at various art schools in Los Angeles. Finding these jobs unsatisfying, she decided to become an artist herself. She returned to Bluefields in 1956 and began to paint the Afro-Nicaraguan people in her community. She painted portraits of market vendors, people carrying baskets on their heads, men working on the docks, and women washing clothes and selling flowers. Despite being a prolific painter, it wasn’t until 1968 that she decided to pursue a professional career in art.

In 1969 Beer went to Managua, where she began to make, sell, and take orders for paintings. She gained a reputation, and art collectors began purchasing her portraits. She sold her work in Managua in 1971 and 1972 while becoming better integrated into the capital’s art scene. While some associated her with the primitivist style popular in Nicaragua at the time, she did not accept the label. She was outspoken about her choice to represent the black experience from a feminist and Afro-centric perspective.

One of Beer’s most notable paintings, The Funeral of Machismo, features a child, a young woman, a pregnant woman, and a grandmother, all shaking their fists at the rooster at the center of the piece. Another painting, Mother and Child, features a young black child sitting on her mother’s lap next to a window overlooking the rolling hills of Bluefields. Another well-known painting, Fruit Vendors, features two black women holding baskets of fruit and sharing a laugh. In the portrait Charlene, Beer captures the beauty of a young girl whose curls and Sunday dress make her a captivating subject. Her Godmother and the Twins depicts a stately black woman holding a baby girl in each arm as she gazes forward proudly.

Beer’s work also reflects themes most closely associated with the Sandinista revolutionary movement, which she openly supported. Her painting Sandino and the Wounded Eagle compares Augusto César Sandino—a Nicaraguan revolutionary in the 1920s and 1930s who was assassinated in 1934 by the National Guard forces of General Anastasio Somoza García—to a fallen eagle. Fusing revolutionary and black pride principles, she painted Black Sandino, which portrays an armed Sandino with black features looking powerful, assertive, and ready to fight in the revolution. This painting won first place at a national competition in 1983, and it was displayed at the Grand Hotel Performance and Exhibition Center in Managua.

Beer was passionate about social change. She was imprisoned by the Somoza National Guard forces twice: once in 1970 and again in 1971 for being in the company of artists suspected of engaging in anti-Somoza activities. An avid reader of poetry as well as books on literature and the history and politics of her country, Beer was familiar with the goals of the National Sandinista Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN) before it arrived in Bluefields to begin the task of consciousness raising. The Somoza National Guard responded to the FSLN’s activities by intensifying the repression against communities on the Atlantic Coast. Beer sought sanctuary in Costa Rica and remained there for two weeks while coordinating the arrival of other Nicaraguan exiles. She returned to Nicaragua immediately after the FSLN toppled the Somoza dictatorship on 19 July 1979. Though the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast had been overlooked for decades, the Sandinista Revolution brought many changes to the region. Beer was a witness and an agent of change during this critical period. She worked for the FSLN government, making an inventory of books on the region for the public library in Bluefields. The new Ministry of Culture also asked her to establish two new libraries in the Atlantic Coast, one in Pearl Lagoon and another at Cukra Hill. She served as head librarian of the branch in Bluefields from 1979 to 1983. During this time, she also published numerous poems and was a contributing editor to Sunrise, a newspaper based in Bluefields. Beer wrote in both Spanish and Creole, honoring the bilingual heritage of black Nicaraguans.

Following the Sandinista Revolution, Beer became a member of the National Artists’ Union (Unión Nacional de Artistas Plásticos de Nicaragua, UNAP) as well as the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers (Asociación Sandinista de Trabajadores Culturales, ASTC). She received first place at the 1983 and 1984 National Competition of Fine Arts, an event held on the anniversary of the revolution. Beer’s paintings received national and international acclaim and were displayed at art exhibitions in many countries, including Barbados, Costa Rica, Cuba, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United States, and the former Soviet Union.

When Beer died of a heart attack in her home, she left a rich legacy in the domains of art, poetry, and cultural activism. Her work continues to be commemorated in Nicaragua. In August 2003, four of Beer’s paintings—Woman Working, They Dance, In Memory of Efie Irene, and Fruit Seller—were declared national patrimony, making it illegal for them to be removed from the country. The Cultural Institute of Nicaragua collaborated with private collectors, art galleries, and the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaragua Caribbean Coast (Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense, or URACAAN) to exhibit Beer’s paintings on several occasions. In 2008, the first June Beer Literary Prize in Mother Tongues (Premio Literario Internacional en Lenguas Maternas “June Beer”), honoring work in Creole or any of the indigenous languages spoken in the region, was awarded under the auspices of the Cultural Institute of Nicaragua. In 2012 the Cultural Institute of Nicaragua organized an exhibition of her paintings at the Rubén Darío National Theater as part of the traditional Afro-Nicaraguan “Mayo Ya” celebrations.

Bibliography

Chow, Juan. “Rostro cultural del Caribe nicaragüense.” Wani: Revista del Caribe Nicaragüense 40 (2005): 58–62.Find this resource:

    Laduke, Betty. “June Beer: An Artist of New Nicaragua.” In Africa through the Eyes of Women Artists, pp. 141–148. New Jersey: Africa World, 1991.Find this resource:

      Laduke, Betty. “June Beer’s Story.” Heresies 5 no. 4 (1985): 54–57.Find this resource:

        Unión Nacional de Artistas Plásticos (UNAP), and Asociación Sandinistas de Trabajadores de la Cultura (ASTC), eds. Pintura contemporánea de Nicaragua. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1986.Find this resource:

          Jennifer Carolina Gómez Menjívar