“I use all these little objects that I pick up walking around,” Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill has said of her work, “[and] those things are tied to places.” On frequent walks through the streets surrounding her studio in Vancouver, including an industrial section that, growing up, she called “the Waste Lands,” Hill collects wildflowers growing amid the grass and detritus strewn in the dirt, like tabs from aluminum cans or small charms and baubles that have been lost or thrown away. For Hill, a Metis artist who lives and works on the unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh people, these objects are symbols or mementoes of the streets themselves, her memories of the changing neighborhood, and the people who find community here. Hill conjures these people and places as she incorporates the objects into her sculptures and “spells”—works on paper that she creates through a labor-intensive process, coating them with oil that is slow to dry, embellishing and adorning them, and then finally casting the spells, which imbues these once discarded objects with magic and a sense of power.
The Waste Lands is an in-between space, formed when an inlet was filled in as part of the settler expansion of the railway, and it remains separated from the cars and passersby of the highly developed blocks surrounding it. Hill recognizes how the land was molded by waves of colonial dispossession yet continues to serve different constituents, including those who remain excluded from “official” public spaces. As she imagines new possibilities for objects that had previously been deemed garbage, Hill also questions the illegality of activities like trespassing or the resale of goods, and calls attention to the ways in which urban space is shaped by an idea of private property. Her artistic practice challenges the popular notion of the city as a “settled” place.
Hill has made work in other environments, like the wintery landscape of British Columbia’s interior, where she joined with artists including Jeneen Frei Njootli, Chandra Melting Tallow, and Tania Willard in learning to snare wild rabbits as part of a collaborative film project titled Coney Island Baby (2021). The artists came together on the territory of the Secwépemc Nation, where BUSH Gallery—an Indigenous artist collective of which Hill is a member—is located. The film’s action takes place in the woods and also around the kitchen table, capturing moments of everyday camaraderie and care between the artists. Hill has noted that the raising and trapping of rabbits is often performed by women, and “is a feminized and often diminished kind of labor.” At the same time, rabbits are also associated with reproduction and sexuality, attributes that are sometimes denigrated but that Hill wishes to celebrate. She sees rabbits’ “reproduction as something really powerful,” and as a symbol of giving rather than of accumulation.
Many of Hill’s sculptures also take the form of rabbits, including Counterblaste (2021), a hybrid rabbit-human figure approximately the size of the artist’s own body. To make this and other sculptures, Hill stuffs ground tobacco into pantyhose to form bodies and appendages. She was drawn to tobacco because of its central role in the histories of Indigenous and settler economies. In Indigenous communities, prior to colonization and through to the present day, tobacco is passed from hand to hand, in what anthropologists call a “gift economy,” guided by ideals of reciprocity, sharing, and sustainability. When Hill thought about how her family and community used tobacco in her own childhood, she understood its significance: “I realized that [tobacco] was this way that the Indigenous economy has survived into my own life—me, a Metis person living in the city,” she reflected. “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.”
Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, 2021