Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill: Money
by Karina Irvine
The history of the tobacco trade is riddled with discord: expropriation of lands, environmental destruction, colonial state regulations and the monopoly on its importation. Before contact, tobacco was widely used as a means to measure price and value in Indigenous economies, but it’s not simply economic. With sacred significance, it has passed between hands for personal, social, political and spiritual uses. In Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s exhibition Money, at Unit 17, the gallery is infused with the rich, balmy scent of tobacco released from its many forms: as resin, dried leaves, seed pods and grounds. By focusing on the Indigenous and colonial economic histories of tobacco, Money extends Hill’s interest in alternative economies, questioning systems of exchange and the valuation of labour. Hill espouses a notion of wealth that is an ongoing socio-economic process of reciprocity and responsibility, a wealth that is contingent on the respect between humans and the natural world.
Hanging above both doorways in the gallery are flags stitched together with alternating colours of pale Virginia tobacco and the amber tint of perique. In an acknowledgement of tobacco’s use as commodity money in America and the turn to paper money by colonial governments in the 18th century, these flags borrow the shape of a scaled-up American dollar bill. In suturing the histories of Indigenous currency with colonial economic and cultural imperialism, these flags perform as signifiers for an alternative economy. Their titles Dispersal (2019) and Disintegration (2019) suggest that they demarcate a site that thrives on the cyclical nature of growth and eventual decay. Affixed to both are a number of tobacco seed pods that take turns bursting over the course of the exhibition, distributing their rugose seeds across the gallery floor which subsequently make their way outside by the traipsing shoes that come and go. The visitors thus play a vital role in the distribution of goods and their potential growth. Naturally evolving, and by turns participatory, the flags represent governance as a social organization—one which encourages the process of ongoing shared efforts toward a slow growth economy that attends to the limits of nature.
On low, table-like structures in the centre of the gallery, a colony of rabbits assume various postures: sitting upright with legs folded, leaning forward with paws poised or bowing their heads as if grazing. These are not ordinary rabbits. They are made up of amassed objects: charms, dried flowers and tin can tabs affixed to pantyhose that encase the bulk of their form, tobacco. They are flaccid, resting limply. Their material composition lends them an urban, rather than pastoral, sensibility, and their names—_Trade_ (2019), Offer (2019), Gift (2019), Mint (2019)—evoke forms of exchange and refer to the multiple systems that tobacco has circulated within. Lastly, the ability of rabbits to breed quickly and in large numbers provides a symbolic association to the capitalist logic of quickly reproducing supply to cater to high demands.
In a conversation in C Magazine issue 136, themed “Site/ation,” Hill recounted that her Uncle Johnny rigged up a trapline in Ottawa to catch rabbits with a friend. The curiosities that this urban snare provoked led to research into the possibilities of trapping in big cities. As it turns out, “trapline” also refers to the route along which a recycler collects bottles and cans—the tin can tabs are a nod to this ad hoc enterprise. Both of these undertakings work as critiques of the self-destructive growth logic of capitalism by way of being self-sufficient and independent within it. By proxy, then, Hill’s rabbits become emblems of alternative economies as a means of survival, in terms of food and financial security.
There is an underlying current in the exhibition highlighting the role of women in subsistence economies. In a conversation with the artist, I learned that the practice of trapping rabbits is an activity often performed by women. These themes were addressed in Coney Island Baby (2018) as well, a film about a group of Indigenous women learning how to trap rabbits, made by Hill along with Chandra Melting Tallow, Jeneen Frei Njootli and Tania Willard at BUSH gallery. Its title, which points to British slang that took “coney” (meaning rabbit) as a punny synonym for “cunny” (meaning cunt) again conjures the inimical associations of “breeding like rabbits.” Despite these complicated connotations, the rabbits in (italic)Money(italic), and in the film, signify the value of women’s roles in holding the community together.
Elevated above the rabbits are two sets of legs— like the rabbits, they are made of pantyhose, adorned with tokens and stuffed with tobacco—folded and sitting across from each other in a ceremonial mien. One, Kiss (2019), has a brooch in the shape of lips in place of its anus. The other, Exchange (2019), has cigarettes neatly tucked underneath its nylon sheath to line its loin. Their position gives them a prominence in the space, but without hierarchy. In sitting across from each other, a mutual respect is implied, further acknowledging the benefits of a collective responsibility to each other and to the land. It could be assumed that these legs evince the trapper, and their genderless
figures reinforce a shared task.
Though the title of the exhibition might seem misleading, Money offers a reflection on the abstract valuation of work and trade. It is a critique of wage labour and capital accumulation, calling for a resurgence of Indigenous economies centering on sustainable forms of exchange. The sacred significance of tobacco, in its use to form limbs and rabbits here, materially connects bodies to land. The gallery has been transformed into a site that asserts sovereignty—pointing beyond the link between colonialism and capitalism to redirect the flow of power back to the land.