SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Before traveling to Stanford University to participate in a conference/symposium, IMU UR2: Art, Aesthetics, and Asian America (October 28-29), I made a short list of galleries and museums to visit in San Francisco. One was a gallery that I had never heard of, but its announcement intrigued me. This is how I ended up seeing Pachi Muruchu: Sumak Yachay at Friends Indeed Gallery (October 27–December 2, 2022), the artist’s debut exhibition.
In particular, this statement on the gallery’s website caught my interest:
In 2019, [curator Micki] Meng was offered a hand-me-down space by the artist community, and Friends Indeed was born. Our first gallery location was founded as an absurdly small experimental vitrine featuring works for sale by leading local and international contemporary artists.
In the age of vast gallery spaces and highly informed sales teams, I have become increasingly interested in the small. As advertised, the gallery is a tiny storefront near Chinatown and the Financial District; the entire show is visible through the window. At one point, when five people were inside, the gallery assistant, Janette Lu, stepped out into the street, so that the rest of us — including the artist and me — could comfortably face each other and talk. The meeting was accidental, and the artist was unguarded and casual, and it never came up that I was a critic. Muruchu told me that he was a recent graduate of RISD and his favorite teachers were Jennifer Packer and Duane Slick, and he had grown up in Spanish Harlem.
This information added to what was in the digital announcement, which featured images of men lying in bed, either ill or reading, in the prone position usually occupied by women in art (a motif reaching back to Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” of 1534). According to the press release, written by Annie Godfrey Larmon:
Muruchu is Kichwa, and his family is from pueblos in Azuay, Ecuador, but he was raised in Spanish Harlem. As he grew up in the 2000s, he was aware of the Lenape whose land his building occupied. He lived alongside Caribbean and Latinx neighbors, who lived alongside pet iguanas and cockatoos. […] Family members on his maternal side were curanderas, or healers, with an intimate understanding of the medicinal properties of plants.
It was the last sentence, in tandem with the images, that got my interest. I was not disappointed. There was something haunting about what I saw and I wondered if I was mistaken or projecting myself onto them. I wasn’t. In “Untitled” (2022), which measures 9 by 7 inches, Muruchu lists his materials as “crayon, colored pencil, amate, and collage on paper.” Amate is a type of bark paper that was used in Mesoamerica, paralleling the use of mulberry paper in China and papyrus in Egypt. First produced by the Mayans, the paper was used by the Aztecs for many official and practical purposes, but it was also considered sacred and believed to possess magical properties. After the Spanish conquest, Europeans forbade its production.
By using amate, Muruchu identifies his project with a resistance to colonization and Euro-centric values, including capitalism. This resistance is joined by a desire to understand one’s legacy and alternative worldviews, and connections to the material world. The small “Untitled” is an overhead view of a woman with a noticeably Incan profile lying on her side in bed. She is reading An Inca Account of the Conquest of Peru, an English translation of the Spanish conquest of Peru, as told by Diego de Castro Titu Cusi Yupanqui to a Spanish missionary, and transcribed by a mestizo assistant. Yupanqui, the penultimate ruler of the Inca dynasty, tells a different story than the one widely circulated by the Spanish conquerors. The fact that Yupanqui’s story survives is proof of his resistance to Spanish pacification. All of this suggests that Muruchu researches his subjects, and that his art doesn’t arise solely out of his feelings or an idealized form of resistance approved by mainstream culture mavens, in which a heroic leader works within the system and leads people to enlightened thinking.
The book reminded me of the arguments against and bans on teaching critical race theory throughout the United States. What dissenters are really against is the teaching of American history that holds everyone accountable — including those who wrote the dominant historical narratives. On the brown bedspread is an embroidered llama, an animal native to Peru, seen upside down, its form echoing in reverse that of the reading woman, whose body partially covers another llama. The palette of red and different hues of brown, in contrast with a pale green bird, suggests a world ruled by color. This sense is reinforced by the two oil paintings flanking “Untitled.”
In one, “Wawkikuna II (El sendero luminoso)” (2022) (Brother II, the shining path), which is titled in Quechua and Spanish, a man with brown skin is lying on a green coverlet, atop a bed fitted with a dark green sheet. The wall is dark yellow. Sitting on the edge of the bed is another man, his head turned toward his brother. A hole in his jeans exposes a scabbed knee. A white cockatoo sits on his shoulder. A paperback sits on the stomach of the man lying in bed; the book is Blood in My Eye (1990) by George L. Jackson, which was completed only a few days before the author died, violently.
In 1961, at the age of 18, Jackson was convicted of the arm robbery of a gas station. He spent 11 years in prison (eight and a half in solitary); he was shot dead while trying to escape. On his transformation in jail, Jackson wrote in Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970): “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.”
In the other painting, “Tsinikuna (The west is gonna perish)” (2022 ), a man painted in a red hue that matches the walls and patches of the quilt beneath him, reclines on a couch reading a yellow paperback titled Faces at the Bottom of the Well. The book is subtitled The Permanence of Racism. In it, author Derrick Bell argues that racism is deeply embedded in American society and that the idea of progress symbolized by the phrase “we shall overcome” is, at best, misplaced. This view seems increasingly true, given the mocking response by numerous conservatives to the vicious attack on October 28 of Paul Pelosi, husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their home, a little more than a mile from the gallery.
In these works Muruchu merges his radical beliefs with a complex sense of color and the moods it can conjure and inflect. The joining of material, process, and content culminates in the artist’s rejection of white America and its efforts to uphold the status quo. By introducing books and discursive images into his work, he invites viewers to begin educating themselves about the long-rotten history of the Americas, from the North Pole to the South Pole, and how it is all connected. I am anxious to see where Muruchu will go and, given the state of this increasingly deranged country, I am anxious for him.
Pachi Muruchu: Sumak Yachay continues at Friends Indeed Gallery (716 Sacramento Street, Chinatown, San Francisco, California) through December 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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