The pop art gaze of the mountain ranges
In the pop art gaze of the mountain ranges, Cholita Chic is the pseudonym of a pioneering Chilean artist in the photographic style known as “Andean pop.” Inspired by chicha music, the posters of Jesús Ruiz Durand, and the works of Andy Warhol, she has created a body of work that stands as a key piece of a continental artistic movement that began in the seventies and is now in full expansion.
By Alonso Almenara
Last year, the Chilean artist Cholita Chic was invited to an event where she could converse with one of her heroes: the American photographer David LaChappelle, renowned for his exuberant pop style that combines Renaissance references, high fashion, and kitsch. Like LaChapelle, she is also passionate about popular culture. Her work draws from the chicha aesthetic that emerged in the Andean region in the early 1970s, with the explosion of cumbia and the posters designed by Jesús Ruiz Durand for the Agrarian Reform under the government of Velasco Alvarado in Peru. But the deep connection between the work of Cholita Chic and LaChapelle, in the artist’s own words, is “the same need for iconization.”
She is considered a pioneer of Andean pop photography, a term she coined to refer to images that combine her devotion to chicha culture, particularly the figure of the Chola, with the pop imprint of Andy Warhol’s work. For Cholita Chic, these images are “the missing piece in the Chicha movement: photography.”
That is a way of acknowledging her debt to artists like Ruiz Durand or Monky and other famous representatives of lettering, but also of establishing her place in the canon of Andean popular art. It is a rapidly growing field, which the artist takes pride in having contributed to revaluing. However, her main interest lies in the people she portrays. “Iconizing” means transforming into an icon: making the human form divine, turning the ephemeral into something that lasts forever. This religious sense underlies all of Cholita Chic’s production, no matter how fun, controversial, or carefree her photographs may be.
She gives me an example: she is currently working with the collective Santa Marica and the Travestis del Folclore, a group that is part of the queer vanguard in the world of Andean folk music. The artist photographed the collective members and used those images to create altars. “The other day, they went to pray at an altar. Imagine that,” she comments. “We received 56 requests. I remember one that said, ‘Santa Marica: my wish is that my illness doesn’t progress.'”
Revaluing, creating community, and iconizing people who fight or resist on the margins of society: is also Cholita Chic. In this interview, the artist discusses her work, reflects on the emergence of Andean pop, and explores some ideas about the future of this continental movement.
How did Cholita Chic come about?
It was born in 2010 when I studied Graphic Design and Editorial Design at university. For a workshop exercise, our professor asked us to choose a style from art history and interpret it using regional folklore. I love pop art and am a big fan of Andy Warhol. So I thought, why not create an Andean pop art style? Since the submission had to be significant in size, I created a sort of imitation of Warhol’s serialized pieces, but instead of Campbell’s soup cans, I used a can of Gloria milk. That was the first experiment. Three years later, I was invited, along with other standout students, to participate in a university fair with a new project. That’s when I decided to showcase the Andean pop art I had been developing and keeping to myself. This time, I took pop-style photographs and decided to portray people. Since then, I haven’t stopped with Cholita Chic.
How would you define your style?
I think it stems from certain cultural interests that are endless; it’s an ongoing investigation. When I started working on this concept, there weren’t any chicha photographs. And I’m very interested in the chicha style. It emerged around the 1970s, a little after Andy Warhol began producing his pop art pieces. I feel a connection there. We created a late-pop movement with a Latin American flavor. As a result, many people started to take notice. The chicha lettering artists themselves, like Monky and Elliot Tupac, told me that this was what was missing to complete the research cycle. There was a lot of lettering, murals, dancing, singing, cumbia, poetry, and very distinctive visual codes, but no Andean pop photography existed. Perhaps it should have emerged in the ’70s, but I proposed it in 2010. That has generated a lot of interest and has allowed me to exhibit in various galleries and connect with prominent figures in this movement: an indigenous pop art that embraces emancipation and empowerment.
I’m very interested in the fact that your interest in this aesthetic has created connections among artists who may not have necessarily known each other but now feel somehow united by a common imprint. And this is something that happens throughout the Andean region.
As a Peruvian, you must be familiar with Jesús Ruiz Durán, the artist responsible for the design of the posters for the Agrarian Reform during the government of Juan Velasco Alvarado. In 2021, I had an exhibition called “Lunes de revolución” at the Salvador Allende Museum with him. It was the first time that many works like the ones I mentioned were exhibited: works by Roberto Matta, Luis Felipe Noé, Javier Rodríguez, Patricia Israel, Alberto Pérez, María Berríos, Cholita Chic, and the photographic section of the Ramona Parra Brigade. All related to that reform or protest from an indigenous perspective. It was very special to be together in that room; it allowed me to close that cycle about what I needed.
I think it was a coincidence. I feel that anyone could have made my proposal for Andean pop photography. Still, I believe these pieces were necessary to close the evolutionary cycle of the movement, this indigenous empowerment, and also of pop art or popular art or chicha art. This indigenous emancipation has not yet happened in political terms, but it is present in our minds. We are in the demonstrations; we are militating.
Where does the name Cholita Chic come from?
I live in Arica, next to Peru and Bolivia: I don’t feel so Chilean. I’m like tripartite. I feel indebted to the Quechua and Aymara cultures and the Afro-descendant population of the area. And “Chola” is a derogatory way of seeing mestizaje (racial mixing), but I think Cholita Chic is a super pop name. In other words, we are still Cholas living in Arica, militating from the border, but we never stop being chic. We never stop reinventing ourselves or having this femininity. Chic is playful and light, but I think it works: there are already expressions like “Chola power,” the Vircholas, and several names related to empowering female Cholitas in Andean America. Most of the photos I take feature women.
I would like to delve deeper into What “Chola” means to you and why it was important to showcase this renewed image?
I LIKED IT when I started exploring and creating the pop-style Gloria milk can, but I needed people. Working with objects is easier, but my entire discourse is very political and revolves around women. Most of my icons are women. However, I believe that we are still greatly marginalized. I still feel that way within my motherhood and my art. And to me, the chola is an empowered figure I identify with. When you travel to Europe, you realize how “cholo” you are, in your customs, in your way of speaking. I embody my Andean heritage in all my behaviors.
But when I began researching the Chola figure, I realized that most of the archives were post-mortem, very anthropological, in black and white, depicting a sad Cholita with a long braid, surrounded by animals, reminiscent of Martín Chambi’s style. But the truth is, women now take the lead in their families. They are always at the forefront, organizing the entire neighborhood, caring for their children, working, continuing their studies, and putting in much effort. I feel connected because I also work a lot, and I became a mother of twins, so I was always busy and very Cholita. That was the turning point to say, “This is it,” and I still feel it in my heart. I believe there is still a need for more empowerment and vision, but in the past ten years, there has been a boom of very modern indigenous ideas related to this.
I’m also thrilled that I did it ten years ago. The key to this project was doing it when no one else did. It was widely misunderstood at first: there was a lot of bullying and criticism.
“When I began researching the figure of the Chola, I realized that most of the archives were post-mortem: very anthropological, in black and white, depicting a sad Cholita with a long braid, surrounded by animals, reminiscent of Martín Chambi’s style. But now, women are taking the lead in their families. They are always at the forefront, organizing the entire neighborhood, taking care of their children, working, continuing their studies, putting in a lot of effort.”
What was the most common criticism?
The most common criticism was that I was too white, and people accused me of cultural appropriation. They also criticized me for using a pseudonym. But as an artist, I don’t have to be an ambassador of indigenism. It’s my form of communication, and I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Your real surname has foreign origins, right?
My parents are Chileans from Arica. My great-grandmother was Peruvian, a dark-skinned girl wearing traditional skirts who married an Englishman. It shows you that women are still limited even in their surnames, which they lose when they get married. My mother has Russian ancestry, so I’m a cultural mix. However, I participated in a project called Candela, where they examine your bones, measure you, and take hair and skin samples to determine your genetic composition. It turned out that I am 48% European and 52% indigenous, right in the middle. I am genuinely a Cholita Chic.
Nevertheless, what I show with Cholita Chic is not autobiographical. It is a documentary research work. Each piece has been thought out and designed because this project started as a design essay. It is constructed; it’s not something I stumbled upon and documented. And I continue to build upon it. Currently, I am working with a collective called Santa Marica and Las Travestis en el Folclor, which has a similar style to Cholita Chic. We had an exhibition, and we are now working together. I have been photographing transvestites involved in the Andean folk scene for four years. Many groups include Waca Waca, Chinas Morenas, Cholas Supay, Españolas, and others. I am documenting and iconizing these figures. We turned one of them into Santa, created petitions, and she had her altar last week. My work as Cholita Chic is all about iconizing these figures in a pop, stylized, empowered, and robust way. That’s why I use vibrant colors, drawing inspiration from the colors of the aguayo, such as pink, green, and yellow. That is how the image of the Cholita is constructed.
You told me that photography in this style was missing to close the cycle of Andean pop. In that sense, what do you see as the movement’s future?
You know, the other day I met Milena Wharton, who is Peruvian. I was with her teaching a class at a school, and she told me, “I do Andean pop.” I was struck by the fact that she thought she had invented it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s in the air. There’s lettering. There’s popular culture. There’s Chacalón; there are Los Shapis, and so on. There is a movement and an aesthetic, but maybe it wasn’t fully conceptualized, and there wasn’t this type of photography that, as I mentioned, closes the movement a bit. It’s also post-movement photography, or it aligns with the movement with a delay of almost 40 years.
I consider myself a very good photographer. I believe there are many aesthetic and beautiful projects around my theme. Still, it’s not as common to give them that cultural meaning that, in my opinion, was a successful move and quickly gained recognition from many colleagues and people seeking me to work with. Today, I am already included in records, and it’s important to me to be considered part of art history and a pioneer in this style of photography. That contributed to reviving this movement. Before going to the museum, see Jesús Ruiz Durand’s posters; you know that was the indigenous pop of the Agrarian Reform. There was nothing else: archives, records of chicha parties, or urban movements, but there wasn’t an image constructed through photography. And this happened at the perfect moment because what I did was part of a movement to revalue chicha culture.
Now I don’t know what else needs to be developed within the movement, but I’m not too worried because people are constantly inventing things: there are stories, and there are books.
Are other artists in this movement surprised you with new proposals?
I like the work of the guys from Brocha Gorda, who are my friends, and we worked on a mural together. It was beautiful. Recently, I met a Bolivian performer named Sharon. She is a techno-cumbia dancer and performs with her long braid, dressed in a white suit. She has a piece where she dances to chicha music while opening beers and saying the words “health,” “money,” and “love” while projecting images from the chicha world. With her spectacular 40-meter braid, she has become a sort of avatar of the movement. I’m very interested in the performances being done concerning the chicha world. I also liked Milena Wharton, her pop is simple, but it’s like seeing a slightly more developed Wendy Sulca. I think she is very genuine, very unique because you can tell when something is a copy of a copy or when someone is too close to their influences.
Outside of the chicha world, I’m very interested in the work of David LaChapelle, whom I met last year at a big event sponsored by Canon. He is the only living disciple of Andy Warhol. When we met, he told me that Andean pop was the most original pop he had seen. He liked the proposal so much that he has one of my artworks in his home. Next year, we will collaborate on a piece: I proposed working on an Andean pop artwork, and he loved the idea. That makes me think I must be doing something right. Something will remain in history. I photograph people who are not famous, but it’s powerful that some people already recognize them on the street and greet them. They become iconic. And that’s what pop is: it’s throwing a bomb, and it’s a genuine love for the brief. Pop loves what is happening in the moment and wants to encapsulate it.