What's Andy Warhol doing in rural Colombia?

JERICO, Colombia — With run-down schools and museums few and far between, rural Colombia can be a cultural wasteland. Beer and eight ball is about as high-brow as it gets.

So what’s Andy Warhol doing out here?

Thirteen of the late artist's silkscreens are on display in Jerico, a community of 12,000 people located in the Andes Mountains three hours by car from Medellin.

It’s a long way from The Factory.

In Jerico, iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Tse-tung hang on the walls of the town’s archeological museum next to a display of Christmas creches. The security guard doubles as the tour guide. Sunburned farmers in sombreros squint at Mao, the Chinese strongman depicted by Warhol in fluorescent orange and pink.

“If all you offer people is booze, billiards and loud music, that’s what the people will take to,” said Carlos Giraldo, the mayor of Jerico. “But if you promote art, then art will flourish.”

Giraldo dreamed up with the idea while studying in Germany in the 1990s. He recalled how treasures of Russia’s Romanov Dynasty were loaned to a museum in a small German town. Art-lovers from all over Europe made the pilgrimage.

Giraldo wanted to pull off a similar coup to bring cultural tourists to his town. The Warhol works were on already in Bogota as part of a traveling exhibition. So, Giraldo and other civic leaders convinced the curator to farm out 13 Mao and Marilyn Monroe silkscreens for a few months.

Just as he planned, the exhibition has drawn big crowds. During a recent afternoon, a delegation of government officials toured the building followed by a gaggle of high school students.

In a way, Andy in the Andes makes perfect sense.

Warhol was a founding father of pop art, the movement that defied cultural elitists by pushing the notion that mass-produced consumer goods — like comic strips, Campbell’s Soup cans or Coca-Cola bottles — were legitimate subjects for fine art.

His focus on mundane items and playful portraits were also ways to make the powerful seem more accessible. Or, in the words of Warhol: “The president drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola too.”

That concept resonates with people living in the Colombian backcountry.

“It’s amazing to see Mao in such aggressive colors,” said Matilda Giraldo, a Jerico teacher, as she examined the silkscreens alongside 20 of her students. “You begin to understand what Warhol was doing.”

The museum directors in Jerico have also paid tribute to Warhol’s famous Brillo soap pad and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box sculptures by stacking cardboard boxes of computer equipment and detergent in the middle of the exhibit. But in this case the result just looks like a pile of trash.

Jerico’s artistic roots pre-date Warhol by more than a century.

The town sprung up in the 1850s and its founding fathers were picky. They didn’t allow miners, cowboys and roughnecks to take up residence and allowed in only those considered decent, God-fearing people.

Missionaries built convents and schools. The town is now home to four museums and three more are in the planning stages. Other attractions include a library, a cultural center, a botanical garden and cable car for tourists. The town government offers painting, drawing, music and reading classes to people living in the countryside.

At first, Mayor Giraldo feared no one would believe the Warhol originals were on display in Jerico and that no one would show up. He was wrong.

“The exhibit produced curiosity and confusion,” Giraldo said. “Then people began looking up Andy Warhol in the encyclopedia and telling their friends.”

Then came the local, national and international media and the stories led to more visitors and more attention. Warhol, it seems, has given Jerico its 15 minutes.