Home Magazine Gabrielle L'Hirondelle Hill. The gift economy

“Projects: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill”, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States at MoMA (through 15th August), brings together works made primarily with tobacco that, prior to colonization, was not only among the most widely exchanged materials in the Americas, but a significant commodity for indigenous. Tobacco as a gift in the rhythm of a gift culture, in the beauty of the economy of exchange.

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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of MoMA’s Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series, Hill’s project is an epistemological warning, a mechanism, a spell to transform the disintegration that occurred with European colonization into an offer, or even a gentle, delicate kiss. The sweet scent of the fresh tobacco leaves, with which one gallery’s wall has been rubbed, remind us of the possibility of decolonization, in a world we used to inhabit.  

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill (b. 1979, Comox, British Columbia, Canada) is a Cree and Métis artist and writer who lives and works on the unceded lands of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Hill’s interdisciplinary practice uses found materials to probe concepts of land (Hill is the co-editor of the beautiful volume The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation - ARP 2009), property and economy. 


Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Cousin. 2019. Pantyhose, tobacco, thistle, spider charm, dandelion, and thread, 6 × 4 × 7 1/16″ (15.2 × 10.2 × 17.9 cm). Private Collection, Vancouver. Courtesy of the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill.


After her solo exhibition “Four effigies for the end of property” at the University of Saskatchewan College Art Galleries in 2020, investigating how the legal concept of property is based on a false premise, Hill explores the idea that tobacco still constitutes an alternative to the capitalist economic system,more than money”, as it did at the time of the English settlers. Today, “the Indigenous economic life of tobacco continues, despite colonialism, criminalization, and the imposition of capitalism,” she observes. 


Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Dispersal. 2019. Virginia tobacco, Perique tobacco, thread, seed pods, support stocking, and found pole, 43 × 14 5/16″ (109.2 × 36.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill.


Ground-tobacco-stuffed sculptures, drawings, collages, and installations combining natural and candid materials that Hill has previously collected from her Vancouver neighborhood. Pantyhose, dandelions, seed pods, beer-can tabs, rabbit fur, and Virginia tobacco. Rabbits, toys, which share similarities with Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals inDeodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991), and hybrid human figures, approximates the size of the artist’s own body, which resemble the provocative sculptures of Sarah Lucas (who used the sociopolitical connotations of the nylon tights) and Louise Bourgeois - among the first to turn stockings into assemblages. Five tobacco-oil-soaked flags hang high on the gallery walls. Sewn directly from tobacco leaves or constructed through a labor-intensive process, in which Hill coats paper in homemade tobacco-infused Crisco oil and applied pigments, the flags, with evocative names like Disintegrationand Dispersal, are an emblem of detachment and necessary re-assembly, reconciliation. Also Hill’s spells- colored drawings adorned with small ephemera - some of which have been made for Hill’s friends (the denim jacket Desperate Living, for E.S.), represent the power of interdependence, and resurgence of alternative models of making and thinking about art. New incandescent gifts to circulate in the exchange economy.


Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Exchange. 2019. Pantyhose, tobacco, cigarettes, thread, tobacco flowers, aluminum can tabs, spider charm, and plastic metal hair clip, 17 5/16 × 20 3/16 × 31 3/8″ (43.9 × 51.3 × 79.7 cm). Courtesy the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill.


Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Spell #6, at the bus stop. 2019. Tobacco-infused Crisco oil, oil paint, magazine cutouts, and tobacco flower on paper, 13 × 9 3/4″ (33 × 24.8 cm). Collection Denis Walz. Courtesy the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill.


Installation view of Projects: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 25, 2021 – August 15, 2021.© 2021 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly


Sarah Lucas, Pauline Bunny, 1997, Wooden chair, vinyl seat, tights, kapok, metal wire, stockings and metal clamp, Object: 950 × 640 × 900 mm, © Sarah Lucas and Tate. 

Cover image: Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites 1991/1999, Plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint, and disinfectant, Overall dimensions variable, © The Museum of Modern art.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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