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Rice with Beans and Hurricane Lips


by Gala Berger

Así como lo fue la energía subterránea que alimentaba la poesía afrocaribeña o la coincidencia de exposiciones sobre temas de género a finales de los años noventa. Vuelve nuevamente el deseo de reclamar otras formas de autodeterminación y agencia y la potencia de la fuerza de la comunidad, no sin contradicciones, problemas y obstáculos.

The Resurrected Word

Only somehow wen ah remenba/ how yuh bussing yo ass/ to defend dis sunrise, an keep back/ de night fran fallin,/ ah know dat tomara we will have time/ fa walk unda de moon an stars. Wrote the Nicaraguan Creole poet and painter June Beer1 in "Love Poem," in 1979. Her words reflect commitment and work towards social transformation. She, who began portraying herself in front of the mirror in the early hours of the morning, made those themes the heart of all her work. The artist also spent her time in social organization, directing the public library of her hometown Bluefields2 and supporting the revolutionary processes of her time with an acute critical sense. Another of her important contributions was to the feminist thought of the region, which, fortunately, is well documented in the interviews conducted by the American artist and researcher Betty LaDuke for the Heresies3 magazine in the late seventies.

June Beer: "Mujer rostro azul" (1985).

Source: La Prensa, February 9, 2016. Courtesy: Centro de Arte FOG.

In one of them, LaDuke describes a painting that Beer painted in 1970, titled El funeral del machismo [The Funeral of Machismo] or El funeral de la dominación masculina [The Funeral of Male Dominance]. It is a small painting where a rooster appears as a symbol of patriarchal power in the domestic sphere. In that same composition, LaDuke observes that in the background are four women of different generations watching the sunrise with their fists raised. It would not be the first nor the last painting by Beer dedicated to women's work, inequality in the private sphere, and the self-representation of Afro-Nicaraguan culture against the erasure of its memory, a product of the promotion of the discourse of a mestizo nationalism.4 In her poems and paintings, June Beer unfolded a response to a brutal context such as that of Central America, which has been and continues to be marked by military occupations and coups d'état, natural disasters, and multiple violences that have especially affected bodies self-perceived as feminine, LGBTQ+ populations, Indigenous communities, migrants, Afro-descendants, and rural areas. She used poetic language and imagination as means to intervene in reality and transform it.

Bilingual Economy

Bono fi café,
bono fi caña;
mi no see no where
the bono fi cacao.
Es que them say,
the gente cacao
no necesitao for peseta,
only the gente from the meseta;
so the man in
the Banco Central
think of we like animal
What a dernocracia "sa"
todo para unos
nothing for todos;
and we tiene no diputao
we cacao man
what a "democratic" land.

Eulalia Bernard5

Article on Eulalia Bernard, published in the newspaper La Nación. Thursday, May 22, 1997.

Biblioteca Nacional de Costa Rica. Courtesy: Gala Berger.

June Beer was not alone in this geographic space known as Central America. In 1976, the Costa Rican poet, diplomat, researcher, and activist Eulalia Bernard6 published her first record-publication in her country, titled Negritud, in which her poems were mixed with sounds and songs. From then on, she would become an essential figure for Afro-Caribbean philosophy in Central America. However, as Quince Duncan would mention later in the introduction to Bernard's first printed book, Ritmohéroe (1982), "her recognition has also resulted in exclusion from the cultural canon, where she should occupy a space for the valuable contribution of her poetic work and her performative activity."7

Bernard's poems not only documented a social reality—her house, her neighbors, her environment—but they also claimed their own sensory universe. The poet would later define these creative processes as "a search for the performative experience of memory inherent in the oral tradition in a new form."8

In other words, her poems contain a performative element inseparable from their representation, staging, and/or readings, which is often overlooked from a white Western gaze or perspectives that understand poetry as static structures. These characteristics of her poetry allowed her to explore the interaction between languages ​​such as Creole, English, and Spanish; and the relationships of the body with sound and words.

These explorations necessarily involved a presence, a voice, and a body: being there, occupying a space, a space of enunciation and pronouncement. And it's not just about any body, as another central part of her work is the ideas about the role that female bodies should occupy in society. Bernard called herself a futuristic woman who predicted that the 21st century would be essentially feminine and worked tirelessly to make it so.

Vibrant Earth

The energy of these and other Afro-Caribbean poets has generated small vibrations that perhaps, without being evident or recognized, have expanded the possibilities of expression and self-representation of many others. Similarly, in the history of exhibitions in Central American art, there are also pioneering events that activated multiplying movements and bolstered the places of enunciation of feminized bodies. One of them was the MUA Instala 99' exhibition, which took place in Tegucigalpa in the week between March 19 and 26, 1999.

This event took place after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America and the Caribbean hard in October 1998. In Honduras, the impact on the territory was so devastating that existing geographic maps were declared obsolete. Despite this, a group of women artists and researchers decided, a few months after the hurricane, to hold an artistic event of unprecedented proportions for the region amidst the rubble. The proposal included a film and video exhibition, the first regional festival of performing arts and dance, a series of conferences, and the exhibition Evidencia y memoria, una exhibición internacional de arte contemporáneo [Evidence and Memory, an International Exhibition of Contemporary Art]. Numerous artists and curators from all over Central America were invited to this event, including the presence of some Caribbean artists, to carry out radical interventions around the notions of body, memory, and public space. The exhibition unfolded in cultural spaces such as the "Arturo H. Medrano" Pinacoteca of the Central Bank of Honduras, the Honduran Institute of Culture IHCI, the Galería Nacional de Arte, the temporary exhibition hall of the Museo Nacional, the Foundation for the Museo del Hombre Hondureño, the Portales Gallery, and the  headquarters of Mujeres en las Artes.9

From Nicaragua, the artist and educator Patricia Belli was invited as a curator and as an artist. There, she presented her solo exhibition La casa (domesticada) [The House (Domesticated)], curated by Bayardo Blandino. In recent conversations with the artist, as part of the podcast series on the recent history of Central American art, "Relatos extemporáneos," produced by the Casa MA collective, Belli recalls the context of extreme precariousness in which the event took place: "My thoughts are associated with joy, effort, and amazement. Joy and amazement hand in hand, effort because everything had to be done, my works were difficult to transport, they were large, they were uncomfortable, they were fragile. I had to break the ladder in two so that it would fit in the bottom part of the bus, and to reassemble it in Tegucigalpa; it was a whole production. Additionally, I took on the role of curator: I worked with photographs by María José Álvarez, Claudia Gordillo, Celeste González, and Patricia Villalobos. Besides the selection, we worked on framing, packaging, loading onto the bus, unloading at the border. That's how everything was at that time that now seems like a time full of glamour, and it was full of glamour: the glamour of enthusiasm, solidarity, the desire to know each other, and the joy of it. They were monumental women, and I understood or glimpsed that this exhibition of women was not only complete, but overflowing.”10

This overflow to which Belli refers is also present in other Central American delegations, such as the work of Guatemalan artists María Dolores Castellanos, Diana de Solares, Irene Torrebiarte, and Isabel Ruiz. The latter created two installations. In one of them, she presented a version of her installation Autoinmersión / Transición [Self-immersion / Transition] (1999 version), where Ruiz questioned the injustices and inequalities of Guatemalan society that simplify or minimize the horrors of war in Indigenous and peasant communities. The artist also exhibited Diálogo de ausentes / monólogo presente [Dialogue of the Absent / Present Monologue] (1999), an unsettling installation where a set of facing chairs are supported on ashes and remains of charred objects.

Another exhibition within the general framework of MUA Instala '99 was Momentos de un proceso [Moments of a Process], featuring Costa Rican artists Sila Chanto, Karla Solano, and Emilia Villegas, curated by Virginia Pérez-Ratton. Honduran artists held three solo exhibitions within the same space: Soy ese signo, el enigma y su respuesta [I Am That Sign, the Enigma and Its Answer] by Johanna Montero Matamoros; Expresión Máxima del control sobre la humanidad / Fabrique su propio bebé [Maximum Expression of Control Over Humankind / Create Your Own Baby] by Regina Aguilar; and Verdades fragmentadas [Fragmented Truths] by Alejandra Paredes. The event also featured artists Lidzi Alvizi (Cuba), María Elena Portales (Puerto Rico), Priscilla Monge (Costa Rica), Marta Eugenia Valle (El Salvador), and Belkis Ramírez (Dominican Republic). There was also the exhibition Cinco artistas de Panamá [Five Artists from Panama], featuring works by Iraida Icaza, Sandra Eleta, Victoria Haydee Suescum, and Isabel de Obaldía, curated by Mónica Kupfer, who emphasized in the catalog that, "MUA Instala 99’ opens a window to the contributions of art made by women in Central America." However, the event did not self-identify as feminist. As noted recently by Guatemalan curator Rosina Cazali,11 the conversations were not yet embracing those concepts, even though urgent gender issues were addressed. This became evident in the works but also in the presentation of a documentary about girls working on the streets, No todos los sueños han sido soñados [Not All Dreams Have Been Dreamed], by María José Álvarez and Martha Clarissa Hernández; the work of dance companies Barro Rojo from Mexico and Danza Desequilibrio from Nicaragua; and a series of lectures that presented topics such as "A Woman's Perspective in the 21st Century," "Women and Writing," "Feminizing Art in Central America," "Murals," "Ideology and Language," among others.

Patricia Belli: sketch for the installation "Ahora soy de agua" (1999). Presented at the Museo Nacional of Nicaragua from May 13 to June 11, 1999.

Mujeres en las Artes Archive, Honduras.

Waters that Unite

Unlike the Central American territories connected by land borders, the colonial routes that shape exchange processes in the Caribbean islands and a communication marked by different languages and histories, make it more challenging to create meeting spaces among Caribbean artists. Some of the most important responses to this situation have come from Caribbean feminisms acting online, which in the words of feminist scholar Tonya Haynes, are "multigenerational, multiethnic, transnational, and pan-Caribbean. Caribbean women have participated in cyber-activist practices and have used the Internet to build communities, organize, and mobilize themselves."12 Haynes has managed to map and analyze these movements accurately.13 But these convergences can also be traced in the history of exhibitions, like the late 1990s landmark called Lips, Sticks, and Marks, presented in August 1998 at the Art Foundry in Barbados, curated by Annalee Davis, Alida Martinez, and Irénée Shaw.

Tonya Haynes: The Light In The Foggy Coast: An Interview To Tonya Haynes By Gala Berger. Barbados - Costa Rica, 2019.

Courtesy: Gala Berger.

Considered one of the first pan-Caribbean feminist exhibitions, it brought together works by seven women from the region: Annalee Davis (Barbados), Joscelyn Gardner (Barbados), Susie Dayal (Trinidad), Irénée Shaw (Trinidad), Roberta Stoddart (Jamaica), Alida Martinez (Aruba), and Osaira Muyale (Aruba). In one of the catalog texts, artist Christopher Cozier points out that this exhibition was the result of conversations that Caribbean women had been having since the early 1990s.

In TEOR/éTica’s Local Writings publications series, , one of the artists and co-curators, Annalee Davis, recounts that, like in MUA Instala 99’, the motivation for the exhibition was a sense of solidarity and collaborative effort. Attacks and controversies were not lacking. Lips, Sticks, and Marks faced harsh criticism that Davis recalls in this way: " That we were seen as vulgar and out of order came as a surprise. We were critiqued for sharing what was too private, for making installations which were read as European imports (ignoring the fact that Caribbean people respond to their environments by taking up whatever is around them and making something new). Somehow, the fact that paint on canvas was itself a European import was never acknowledged. Were this an exhibition of seven male Caribbean artists from the Dutch and Anglophone territories, it might have been understood as radical in its attempt to build bridges and express solidarities."14

The Community Returns

La Casa Revoltosa in Guatemala City is preparing to organize a new Biennial of Resistance, a series of activities and meetings with activist art. Its directors Christa Krings, Fernanda Alvarado, Maya Juracán, Jimena Galán Dary, and Vekis Morales are busy with the final preparations. They are one of the generational relays that are once again encouraging the creation of more networks of collaboration and solidarity among artists from Central America and the Caribbean. The movement empowering these encounters repeats the form of collectivity. Just as it was the underground energy that fueled Afro-Caribbean poetry or the coincidence of exhibitions on gender issues in the late nineties.

The desire to reclaim other forms of self-determination and agency and the power of community strength return once again, not without contradictions, problems, and obstacles. Inevitably, there are also conflicts in these confluences. Precarity and difficulties in carrying out activities are manifested in exchange processes. But these actions and their predecessors deserve to be recounted and related, with their commonalities and differences, because they are an undeniable part of who we are today.