In 1941, the exhibition “Indian Art of the United States” filled New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Indigenous works in order to transform their status from curios or ethnographic specimens to fine art. Eighty years later, the Métis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill had a double-height wall in MoMA rubbed down with fresh tobacco leaf—when I was there, a few sweet-smelling particulates escaped the gallery’s filters and lingered in the air. Hill’s exhibition, her first solo institutional presentation in the United States, is also the first by an Indigenous woman at the museum’s Fifty-Third Street location. Tobacco is her primary theme and material, and here she stuffs, sews, and infuses it into collages and soft sculptures that intertwine the plant’s contrasting meanings within colonial and Indigenous value systems.
Five large flags—two of which, Disintegration and Dispersal, both 2019, are sewn from dried and cracking tobacco leaves—gesture toward recognizing Indigenous sovereignty. The flags’ proportions are based on those of the US dollar bill and call to mind tobacco notes, which were among the earliest forms of paper currency in the British North American colonies. Hill emphasizes the economic and political histories of the plant over its ceremonial and spiritual uses, but the artist also examines her medium’s role within alternative Indigenous economic systems rooted in kinship, exchange, and gifting. Thirteen of Hill’s Spell drawings, which she began making in 2018, are coated in tobacco-infused Crisco and adorned with various items, including magazine cutouts, charms, and wildflowers; the artist has given some of these pieces to friends and used others for trade. Two pairs of nylons packed with ground tobacco, Exchange and Kiss, both 2019, are arranged like kneeling human legs on plinths. A group of rabbit sculptures has been created from similar materials: Some of them have beer-can tabs for eyes, and one even has a cigarette spine. Rabbits have often been used to represent women in overtly sexualized ways (think of the terms ski bunny and beach bunny, or the Playboy brand), but for Hill they symbolize the labor of reproduction and fecundity. By referencing Indigenous life ways in these sculptures—such as rabbit trapping, which tends to be characterized as female work within Indigenous communities—Hill honors economic models that are expansive, generous, and powerful.