I was in conversation with Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill between this past August and October. I reached Hill from London, UK, and over the period of our interaction, we navigated the intricacies of distant time zones, the entire Atlantic Ocean, and an ever-evolving pandemic. As a conversation partner, Hill was kind, engaging and always honest.
Hill is a Cree and Metis artist/writer living in Vancouver, BC, located on the unceded Musqueam, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh territory. The artist employs sculpture, installation, found materials, and paper as tools for enquiry into concepts of land, property, and economy. Hill is interested in Indigenous economies, the valuation of labour, the peripatetic process, tobacco, sunsets in a certain part of town, our relationship to space, ephemera, bunnies and so much more.
Sourcing many of her materials from her own neighborhood, there is a central intimacy to the artist’s work. As a member of the Indigenous artist collective BUSH Gallery, Hill is committed to decolonial and non-institutional ways of engaging and valuing Indigenous knowledge and creative production. This model has led the way for an experimental practice that prioritizes land-based teaching, thinking, and community engagement.
In 2017, Hill acquired deaccessioned artifacts from the North Vancouver Museum and Archives. A result of their forthcoming relocation, the museum had reached out to Polygon Gallery in an attempt to help rehouse many objects and Reid Sheer, the museum’s director recommended they reach out to Hill. The artist had visited the archives on several occasions and some of the items she selected were repurposed into four sculptures titled Four Effigies For the End of Property: Preempt, Improve, The Highest and Best Use, Be Long (2017). These works act as leading testimony and witness to how the land on which Polygon Gallery stands became property under the law of Canada, stolen from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh First Nation. Each of the four works explores the structure that enabled this land to be translated and transfigured into private property.
This past summer, Hill was set to open a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York that has since been postponed to April 2021 as a result of the global pandemic. Projects: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill will be the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. The exhibition brings together sculptures, drawings and a great big bunny made of tobacco in a mission to call attention to the plant’s complex Indigenous and colonial histories. As the artist explains, the bunny is used to recall both an Indigenous and a reproductive labour that has been historically disciplined and criminalized for centuries. Tobacco’s sacred and sensorial properties have taken many forms. It has been passed between hands for personal, social, political, and spiritual uses for generations past and will continue to for generations to come.
In this conversation, Hill and I speak about: tobacco, collective memory, energetic fields, Indigenous economies, the pandemic, coded landscapes, making art in a capitalist system, drawing in order to get rid of something but mostly to hold onto it and a great deal more.
Despite the fact that colonial governments have used very extreme measures to impose capitalism onto Indigenous people, our economy has survived, and it poses a living alternative to capitalism and a threat to capitalism.
A great way into the crux of your practice is through your use of tobacco, a material that permeates and gives form to much of your work. Can you speak to how you began working with the material and what drew you to it?
I actually began working with tobacco in a class where the instructor posed to us a series of experiments and challenges to carry out in the studio – mine was to make something that someone could smell rather than see. What struck me during the critiques was that everyone in the class associated tobacco with big advertising or corporate greed, whereas I had been thinking about ceremony, or offerings, because I was raised doing those things with tobacco. After that first work, I just became very interested in why my family and other Indigenous families use tobacco and in the material itself, the history of the plant and the way it smells and the texture of the dried leaves, and the colour of the flowers and everything. I grew twenty plants in my studio under grow lights over the winter. My whole studio was filled with these plants in buckets and they bloomed in January. I grew more [plants] up around my reading chair in the window and I used to do my reading up there surrounded by them.
I am drawn to your relationship with tobacco because of how seamlessly the political fuses with the personal. When you mention growing tobacco plants in your studio and around your reading chair, I started thinking about the tobacco plants as a kind of multifaceted energetic field, if you will. Tobacco is also known to have held economic properties in Indigenous communities. What have these ideas led you to - both inside and outside your practice?
The way that tobacco circulates as an offering or a gift can be understood as – and I’m reducing the complexity for sake of this interview – part of a “gift economy”. I don’t like that term necessarily, as it is used by anthropologists and I do not think anthropologists have really understood what is happening in non-European economic systems. But I am using it here because if one wanted to, they could google and get a sense of what I am talking about. A term I think is more appropriate is Indigenous economy, and I have also heard the term kinship economy used. When I began to think about the way I was taught to use tobacco I realized that it was this way that the Indigenous economy has survived into my own life – me, a Metis person living in the city. Despite the fact that colonial governments have used very extreme measures to impose capitalism onto Indigenous people, our economy has survived, and it poses a living alternative to capitalism and a threat to capitalism.
Do you feel that tobacco acts as a signifier of collective memory in your work?
I haven’t thought of it that way but I suppose it must. I actually have almost no sense of smell, though I can smell strong scents like tobacco, But I don’t have that thing where a scent triggers memory. I think the smell of tobacco for people though is very quick to bring up memories and associations. I think depending on people’s cultural relationships with the plant, the works can definitely trigger big feelings and big ideas. The first work I made, the flag Orinoco Note, its shape is so blank, although the dimensions are very particular in the end it’s just a rectangle, and I think the power of something so spare is that people have a field where they can then think about whatever they want.
How might your use of tobacco take shape or morph in your upcoming exhibition at MoMA? How do you feel your relationship with the material has changed since your earlier projects?
I’m making a great big bunny. I think I’m just more comfortable with the material. But I don’t want to get too comfortable, I like to keep pushing the forms, experimenting, seeing what else I can do.
I became very interested in rabbits as these animals that have been really derogated because of their association with sexuality and reproduction. In my mind they became this symbol of how reproductive labor and Indigenous labor has been made invisible, has been disciplined, outlawed and demonized.
In the past, I am thinking specifically of Money at UNIT 17, your bunnies have been interpreted as emblems of alternative economies. Can you speak to this a bit more and how they started emerging in your work?
The bunnies came from a project I did with Chandra Melting Tallow, Jeneen Frei Njootli, and Tania Willard – all of whom are artists who are interested in Indigenous economies. Jeneen does amazing work about the sewing practices in her family and Tania has made beautiful work about gifting. We wanted to make a film about rabbit hunting, an Indigenous economic practice that is feminized and often overlooked. I became very interested in rabbits as these animals that have been really derogated because of their association with sexuality and reproduction. In my mind they became this symbol of how reproductive labor and Indigenous labor has been made invisible, has been disciplined, outlawed and demonized. So I became interested instead of holding up the rabbit and celebrating the way they multiply, giving outward rather than accumulating.
The project you are mentioning -- Coney Island Baby was filmed during a December excursion to BUSH Gallery on the territory of the Secwépemc Nation - in the interior of British Columbia. I mention BUSH Gallery because of its particularly unique mission as a trans-conceptual gallery space - which requires "the body to be in a constant state of flux". These more innovative approaches to gallery spaces are interesting because they are able to capture the energy of a temporary coalition without becoming themselves a lethargic institutionalized network. As a member and former resident of BUSH Gallery, what do you feel is the most important aspect of these spaces? And if at all, how do you interpret this dichotomy between institution and trans-conceptual space?
For me, what is most important about BUSH gallery is the friendships between the members and collaborators. I think because we approach BUSH gallery intentionally as this place that is led by the land or centred around the land, and it is not focused on production or individual egos, or art business, that influences the way we act when we are there. It is very intentionally about working together to take care of food, cleaning, kids, as well as the art and the ideas. The other most important thing about BUSH gallery is that it is about opening up your self to learning, thinking, and living in new ways. This has been extremely influential on my practice and my life in general.
In an interview with Chandra Melting Tallow, Jeneen Frei Njootli, and Tania Willard for C Magazine about Coney Island Baby, you mention that the project made you think about how the work was being created through motion. In the context of the film and trapping rabbits, the peripatetic process of working and thinking through movement makes for an interesting lead. How does this peripatetic method permeate in your thinking and working process?
I have to admit that I know very little about the peripatetic method, which is funny considering how much I talk about it! But I did start thinking at one point that the academic model of thinking was both logically and physically mired in the current economic mode, i.e. capitalism. And I thought maybe making art is a more open ended way of thinking or learning. And yes, it's often peripatetic, the way I make art, but additionally making art is a way of thinking that is not always based in language or in written language, so I feel that it's likely that it makes your brain function or fire in a different way. I realize that art as we understand it itself is a product of capitalism, yet I still think there is this potential for me there to step outside of prescribed ways of thinking or experiencing things.
Your series entitled Spells is interesting within this line of thinking. The works begin as sheets of paper coated in tobacco-infused Crisco oil and throughout several months they dry. During this period, you gather an array of ephemera from your neighborhood to sew into the Spell and from there the topography of the work begins to take shape. What do you make of the suggestion that the Spells act as kinds of coded landscapes and the larger implications and rejections that they might suggest?
Yes, I'd say that is true. I mean literally sometimes I am thinking of a place, or a kind of place, when I make them. I am thinking about how fences in the city have things hanging or caught up on them - shirts, gloves, keys, and some newspaper maybe. Or I'm drawing a particular view that I remember one summer night laying out on a dirt road with a friend looking at stars. Or I'm thinking of what the sunset looks like in a certain part of town that I walk through often. And because I use all these little objects that I pick up walking around, I think those things are tied to places and so conjure place. I'm not suggesting the rejection of anything, though I don't like to see the places I know disappear. Wait, I guess sometimes the spells are also rejections, like I want to get rid of something and the drawing is about that. But they're more often made in order to hold on to something.
I have been thinking that in some ways the pandemic has highlighted that many of us think, create and write in a much less linear way than we might have previously imagined. It feels like an exciting and fruitful revelation. How has the pandemic shifted your way of operating, creating and existing both in and outside of practice?
My kid was around 8 months old when the pandemic hit, and I'm a single parent, so things were bananas before and are still bananas. Everything has felt like a dream -- like hazy and surreal and hard to keep track of -- since I had her. I would say she has changed my way of creating and existing much more than the pandemic. I remember being pregnant and I would walk everyday through the snow to the studio, and I was nauseous and incredibly tired and it would be so so hard to get anything done. Now I get one studio day a week, I'm there 9-430 and I get so much done! And I love it so much - I feel so lucky to have that time to myself.