Origins of the Chicha art form
Born in the 1980s as the result of a clash between indigenous and colonial cultures, Chicha art has long been associated with Peru’s “lower classes.” Originally used to advertise musical events, it has been revived by a new generation of artists and activists. Its bold color palette pays homage to the Andean culture that gives the streets of Lima their identity.
Historical and Artistic Context for the Show
As a descriptor, it would seem that chicha is a catch-all word, often referring to a drink made from purple corn, a musical genre, and a beverage of fermented fruit and grains. Born from the working class, chicha—in any form or usage—has become synonymous with Peru’s indigenous culture. Within the last 10 years, presumably ascribable to the 2011 and 2016 elections involving the controversial Fujimori family, the chicha style of art has resurfaced as means for artistic activism and protest.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the influx of migrants entering Lima from Andean and Amazonian regions attempted to carve a place for themselves within the city’s cultural landscape, which was seemingly influenced by Europe and the United States. It became clear that the cultural clash would redefine Lima’s music scene, with migrants introducing Limeños (residents of Lima) to native Huayno music, while they themselves incorporated newly accessible electric guitars. The resulting fusion is what became known as the chicha style of music, pioneered by bands like Alegria, Los Shapis and Chacalón. By the 1980s it was the most widely played style of music on Peru’s radio waves. Along with the explosion of this genre came the need for advertising performances. Local artists began the nightly ritual of pasting screen-printed flyers throughout Lima’s streets, which were often removed by city workers at dawn. Artists reacted by producing even larger and colorful eye-catching posters that would, in turn, give Lima’s grey streets their iconic, chromatic identity.
The first chicha artists
Though it’s widely debated who should be given credit for creating what is now consider chicha art, it’s agreed that in the 1980s it was chicha art pioneer Pedro “Monky” Rojas Mesa who provided the characteristic day-glow palette and playfully rounded letterforms. Monky embraced the bright colors from textiles of the indigenous people of the Huancayo region, mimicking brightly colored embroideries with his signature fluorescent pigments. Other artists took notice.
Even though the separation of classes still heavily defines Lima’s society today, it is both chicha music and chicha art that has manifested itself as being wholly “Peruvian,” while maintaining its status as the aural and visual representation of the working class. Posters for musical bands would give way to screen-printed slogans, sayings, idioms and political ephemera. For many, chicha would redefine the derogatory term “cholo,” which is often used to describe a person of indigenous American or mestizo heritage–namely those with tan or brown skin and who have features of Amerindian ethnic groups. Artists like Elliot Tupac would refine the medium and broaden its scale to expansive murals celebrating the indigenous culture–proudly painting “Cholo Power” over a curled ribbon of the Peruvian flag in Miraflores, Lima’s upscale coastal neighborhood.
Chicha artists today
Younger generations of Peruvian artists followed suit. Bidkar Yapo of Nación Chicha would alter the first line of the Peruvian national anthem from Somos libres, seámoslo siempre (We are free; let us always be so), into: Somos cholos, seámoslo siempre (We are cholos; let us always be so).
Fernando Castro and Carol Fernandez of the Amapolay collective utilize chicha-influenced letterforms and colors within their own work, as well as their collaborations with other artists. Perhaps the most politically engaged of the group, their work supports ancestral heritage, the rights of indigenous people and marginalized communities, and often points to the injustices and human-rights violations of the Fujimori administration–which included mass killings and forced sterilization of over 300,000 indigenous women between 1996-2000.
Equally critical of world leaders and politicians is former prison lord and convicted murderer Lu.Cu.Ma. (Luis Cuevas Manchego) who, during his 27-year prison sentence for killing several people including his brother, found god and art. His large-scale oil paintings often depict prison scenes and politicians with reptilian bodies. Interestingly, Lu.Cu.Ma. was the subject of a VICE feature entitled, From Psycho Killer to Painter. Today, he exhibits his work in prominent galleries in South America and Europe.
Samuel Gutierrez of Familia Gutierrez, a print house in the famed city of Cusco, creates high-end and highly detailed posters celebrating all things iconically Peruvian: the combi, mototaxis, as well as their beloved Viringo, a hairless breed of dog also known as the Peruvian Inca Orchid.
Similarly playful are works by Moises Sants, a self-taught artist who in 2017 founded UPUS Perú–an acronym for Unidos por un Sueño (United by A Dream)–an urban initiative whose mission is to give hope and promote joy among the people of Lima. Born from the desire to interact with fellow commuters, Sants initiates group conversations with riders in Lima, where it is common for workers and students to commute from outlying neighborhoods for 3 plus hours each way. Departing from mass-produced serigraphs, Sants often creates one-of-a-kind pieces merging drawing, paint and watercolor, “I see UPUS making magic every day. I see people sharing stories of hope, and I see laughter now. I see it revolutionizing the street in a city where almost no one greets or smiles at a stranger.”
It’s impossible to ignore Sants’ sentiment. As buses full of commuters noisily make their way through the crowded streets of Lima, it’s quite rare to see passengers engage with each other. Perhaps that’s common in any large city. But equally undeniable is the joyous, celebratory spirit of those with indigenous and Andean roots.
Where Chicha art continues to thrive
As the sun sets in Lima, and the local bars and restaurants fill with patrons, one can’t help but hear conversations and laughter co-mingle with the vibrant upstrokes of chicha music’s Andean-influenced pentatonic scale. This is where chicha art truly lives—born from a group of spirited people whose ancestral roots are both brilliant and fluorescent.