April 25 – August 15, 2021
New York City
The wall text that introduces Projects: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill at the Museum of Modern Art reminds me that I am standing “on the island of Manhattan in Lenapehoking, not far from where a Lenape village called Sapokanikan, or ‘tobacco field,’ was once located (in today’s Greenwich Village).” Tobacco, it seems, was never far from reach in the centuries preceding colonialism’s spread across the Americas. Traditionally used as medicine and in religious ceremonies, it was also a central component of Indigenous gift-economies, shadow systems of capitalism based on reciprocity and a primacy of community that continue today. For Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, a Métis artist, it serves as the through-line of her artmaking, the essential material of sculptures and drawings that recall histories both personal and collective. Organized by associate curator Lucy Gallun, the exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of MoMA’s “Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series.”
11 small paintings—Hill calls them “spells”—line the walls of the gallery. For each, the artist soaks paper in Crisco oil infused with tobacco, allowing it to dry before sewing on small trinkets and mementos found on walks through her neighborhood in Vancouver. The spells are colored with washes of oil paint, and further embellished with magazine cutouts, cigarettes, beer-can tabs, and tobacco buds. Some of the spells were made for friends in the spirit of reciprocity and dispersal, tenets of gift-economies. Others honor places or times of day Hill wishes to remember. The paper in Spell #10, for unsticking (2019) has been cut into a roundish shape and painted in a spiral of dark colors ribbed with black radials that meet in the center. It might be a portal, or maybe a pit into which one must fall. The objects that adorn this work—a beer-can tab, a tobacco flower, a photo of a spider’s web, and a snake charm—seem intended to heighten the spell’s efficacy. Meanwhile, a cloud of blue paint hovers beneath a darkened sky in Spell #6, at the bus stop (2019). Thin horizontal stripes run across the image like lines in a notebook. A tobacco flower hangs from a fiery paper wing while a black bird, often a symbol of magic or transformation, perches on the edge of the picture. There is a tacit intimacy in the choice of shapes and objects affixed to the composition, and I wonder whether Hill’s spells are named for the state in which the artist makes them or for their effect on the viewer. My guess is both.
In the center of the gallery, low plinths hold soft sculptures formed from earth-toned pantyhose stuffed with shredded tobacco. A collection of small bunnies, cleverly made by twisting and knotting the hosiery, pose in groups of four. Bunnies carry a demeaning association with reproduction and sexuality, and for the artist, reference reproductive labor as well as the Indigenous economic practice of rabbit hunting, both of which have been denigrated and made invisible in European-American society. In Hill’s hands the bunnies are transformed into symbols of generosity and abundance, “giving outward rather than accumulating.”1 In Counterblaste (2021), a large brown bunny about the size of a human reclines on a table, her head cradled in her arm, much like an odalisque. She wears purple running shoes whose soles are worn and caked with dust. Eight nipples protrude from her torso, ready to offer sustenance to her young even as she rests in a moment of self-care. Honoring the importance of nurturance, work that remains unrecognized in capitalist systems, Counterblaste pushes against images that disempower Indigenous women (and all women) by reducing them to objects of desire.
Four flags, each the dimension of a dollar bill, hang over MoMA’s gallery. In Dispersal and Disintegration (both 2019), dark bands of Perique tobacco are sewn against lighter bands of Virginia tobacco in stripes and blocks of color that resemble the American and French flags. Perique tobacco was originally cultivated by Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes; it is a key ingredient in the Natural American Spirit brand of cigarettes. The Virginia variety is the foundation of the American cigarette industry. Such juxtapositions bring to light the choice to live within alternative economic philosophies under questionable—and perhaps ephemeral—sovereignties. The flags hang limp and wrinkled, and show signs of tearing.
Green and brown flecks of tobacco stick to one of the gallery’s walls where it has been rubbed with fresh leaves. Hill is quoted in the wall text as noting that this infuses the exhibition with a sweet scent, “to remind us of the immaterial world, the unknown, and the still possible.” I have not noticed this because, of course, I am wearing a mask. However, I am fully vaccinated and early on a Saturday morning I was mostly alone in the spacious room. Even the security guard stepped out from time to time. At one such moment, I dared to lower my mask to take a deep breath. Summer. The scent of hay drying in the sun. The Earth and all it offers.