Working With Tobacco, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill Offers Decolonial Possibilities

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s first US solo museum exhibition inundates the viewer with the tantalizing, musky scent of tobacco. The plant is the principal material in the Métis artist’s show at MoMA, which juxtaposes, across sculpture and drawing, tobacco’s Indigenous history alongside its colonial legacy.

Hill recently became the first exhibiting MoMA artist to withdraw from museum programming in solidarity with the ongoing “Strike MoMA” protests, organized in response to the involvement of various museum trustees in violent neocolonial projects. The exhibition, meanwhile, remains open to the public, and offers a critical, much-needed survey of decolonial possibilities. 

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, “Spell #9, sunrise on clark” (2019), tobacco-infused Crisco oil, oil paint, wildflowers, tobacco flowers, magazine cutout, spider charm, and thread on paper, 13 × 9 3/4 inches (image courtesy the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill)

Long before the arrival of European colonizers, who pronounced tobacco one of the most lucrative cash crops in the Americas, Indigenous communities traded the plant within distinctive gift economies. Resources were given, rather than sold. 

Fittingly, Hill lines the gallery walls with a collection of small drawings, which she often gifts to friends. She refers to each work, which she makes on paper drenched in tobacco-infused Crisco oil, as a “spell” that conjures timeless values like reciprocity and interdependence — central to a gift economy. Like in “Spell #14, petrovoloi” (2020), these drawings tend to be studded with locally sourced materials from her Vancouver neighborhood. In this case, thistle garnishes a deluge of smoldering red hues that invokes land ablaze. 

At the center of the gallery, sculptures made from Nylon pantyhose filled with deep-brown ground tobacco repeatedly take on rabbit, human, and hybrid human-rabbit figures. “Kiss” (2019) and “Exchange” (2019) both recall folded legs. Draped atop elevated white display tables, the sculptures pose like items for sale at a clothing store, inviting reflection on tobacco’s mass consumption while underscoring the routinely outsourced and concealed labor involved in the plant’s production.

Peering up, I am struck with a heightened awareness of place as I study the assertive flags that Hill crafts from disintegrating tobacco leaves. These works, whose dimensions scornfully replicate the US dollar bill, guard each wall and mark territory, reminding us that the museum, located on the island of Manhattan in Lenapehoking, occupies stolen Lenape land and like all Western art institutions, will never be a neutral space. 

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, “Cousin” (2019), pantyhose, tobacco, thistle, spider charm, dandelion, and thread, 6 × 4 × 7 1/16 inches (image courtesy the artist and Unit 17, Vancouver, and Cooper Cole, Toronto © Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill)

Projects: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill continues through August 15 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Lucy Gallun. 

In her first US solo museum show, Hill invites reflection on tobacco’s mass consumption while underscoring its long Indigenous history.Read MoreArt, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York, ReviewsHyperallergicRead More

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