Sobey Art Award 2023: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill
It’s not unusual to smell Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s work before laying eyes on it. In the artist’s most recent body of work, M***** (2023), the scent of ripe berries meets visitors as they enter the gallery, the space perfumed by strawberries strung across the limbs of a web-like sculpture. In earlier projects, the sweet musk of tobacco has often hung heavy in the air, owing to Hill’s ongoing work with the substance. Shaped into flags, stuffed into pantyhose and infused in Crisco and applied to paper, the plant’s olfactory presence has underlined many of her exhibitions, a potency she’s sometimes deepened by rubbing the walls of the gallery with tobacco leaf itself.
In the overall thrust of Hill’s practice, the use of scent is a minor gesture, though it’s an instructive one – at once a canny dismissal of Eurocentric systems of classification and value that have long placed sight atop the hierarchy of senses and an invitation to a different kind of engagement, one embedded as readily in the body as the mind. In upending the visual as the singular locus of discovery, Hill cuts swiftly through 300 years of colonial thinking that has instrumentalized sight and sound as honourable senses associated with the mind – a line of thought concurrently responsible for establishing a primordial Other, one ostensibly unliberated from the corporal and its “lower” senses.
This is a range of motion common to Hill’s work: dispensing with the categorical imperatives of Western thought to highlight that which operates beyond its frame. Whether assembling found-object sculptures that interrogate concepts of ownership, rendering maternal bunny forms to consider the cultural value of feminized labour, or producing cameraless films that visualize processes of intergenerational transmission, Hill persistently and poetically lifts the epistemological veils of settler capitalism to skewer the fallacies embedded in colonial notions of property, economy and family. In their stead, Hill centres knowledges and economies that operate, at least in part, outside the logic of capitalism. Training her attention on spheres such as Indigenous economic traditions, reproductive labour and decentralized kinship networks, the artist emphasizes the radical power and potential of each as living alternatives to – and threats to – Western systems of capital and control.
Hill’s ongoing engagement with tobacco is exemplary on this front, with the artist tracing the substance’s material and symbolic significance within both Indigenous and colonial economic histories. This exploration has assumed a range of shapes in her practice in recent years, though perhaps manifests most acutely in a series of soft, figurative sculptures she’s produced with tobacco and pantyhose, each extending from human or animal forms. The figure of the bunny is a recurring one in this body of work, an allusion in part to economies rooted in reciprocity and abundance. Across these works, Hill gives a nod to both subsistence practices of trapping and raising rabbits – a labour that’s often undervalued by virtue of it being feminized – and the creature’s notorious reproductive impulses, a kind of wealth expressed through multiplication.
Hill maps a similar ethic of prosperity in the economic life of tobacco, which was one of the most widely traded goods in the Americas prior to colonization, circulating within Indigenous communities as a gift, an object of exchange, and a spiritual and medicinal material. The arrival of English settlers, however, saw the imposition of an altogether different use-value on the plant, with tobacco adopted as an early currency in North American colonies, one used to purchase goods, pay wages, and levy taxes and fines. Tobacco would come to play a pivotal role in the economic “development” of the Americas – a process, Hill notes, that was accompanied by violent efforts to criminalize and extinguish Indigenous economic practices.
Works such as Counterblaste (2021) operate as a rejoinder on this front, underscoring the ways Indigenous economies have continued to survive into Hill’s own life. A life-sized humanoid rabbit figure, the sculpture is posed in recline, two rows of nipples stretching down its torso, with eyes fashioned from flowers and a pair of well-worn Mizunos tucked snugly on its feet. Although Hill alludes to the rich historical life of tobacco in her work with the plant, the sneakers are an insistent nod to the present moment, squarely disrupting any attempts to place this conversation in a distant time or place.
This, of course, is one of the central impulses of Hill’s practice: a refusal of colonial frameworks of time. Her works deftly upend unidirectional or teleological concepts of history that both feed myths of the primeval pre-colonial subject and frame capitalism as an inevitable evolutionary advancement in the path of human development. Instead, her work engages time as non-linear and multiplicitous, mapping both a complex past that will always exceed Western narratives and a radical future unbound from them.
Hill increasingly gives shape to these ideas formally, with her most recent body of work imaging a series of reflections on parenting and reproductive labour in ways both circuitous and dispersed. In M*****, for example, Hill presents a pair of looping cameraless films, one composed of hair affixed to clear 16 mm film stock, the other of silk tissue soaked in blackberry ink and punctuated with burn marks. Projected alongside one another, the films materialize an endless circuit of connections, disconnections and disruptions, reflections on the interdependent, intergenerational sustenance of both self and community. An accompanying suite of drawings evince ghostly traces of 16 mm filmstrips in pencil, unfolding in multiple, overlapping directions or echoing across the surface of the page. Across each of the components of this project, Hill grapples with motherhood as a temporal and ontological experience, moving one both forwards and backwards across time: towards the knowledges, injuries, kinships and care structures that shaped one’s forebears, while simultaneously projecting toward future generations.
It’s no accident that the materials that sustain these investigations are resolutely vernacular: tobacco, wildflowers, berries and beer-can tabs are recurrent across Hill’s output, each tethered in some way to the material realities of her life. While the critiques of her practice are superstructural, the responses she points to are both lived and living. Her early Spell drawings (2018–ongoing) manifest this plainly, marshalling both objects and charges of a quotidian variety. It’s a laborious process that brings these drawings to life, with Hill applying successive layers of pigment- and tobacco-infused Crisco to paper, allowing them to dry for months at a time before punctuating them with ephemera gathered from her local neighbourhood. While each is possessed of a feeling, place or idea Hill wants to hold onto or bring forwards in the world, what they conjure is something much greater – a testament to the power and possibility of what’s already at hand, to that which survives and surfaces beyond the frame of the dominant.
The 2023 Sobey Art Award exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 13, 2023 until March 3, 2024, with the winner being announced in November 2023. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.