Inuk artist offers new twists on traditional hunting and fishing tools
Couzyn van Heuvelen is the third Inuit artist to be nominated for the Sobey Art Award
Couzyn van Heuvelen is best known as the Inuk artist who creates oversized, tin-foil party balloons that are made to resemble avataqs—the inflatable sealskin floats traditionally used by Inuit hunters to track and tire marine mammals.
He’s also created giant, five-foot-tall fishing lures that could leave you wondering if he’s preparing to catch a giant, mythological beast—or whether he’s trying to hook the viewer.
And he’s created some unusual cross-overs between two commonplace objects found in the Canadian Arctic that may prompt double-takes: a qamutik made from repurposed shipping pallets, and conversely, a pallet tied together using the same methods traditionally used to build a qamutik.
Odds are, you’ll be hearing more about van Heuvelen’s art in the future. The 30-year-old recently received a big bump to his reputation, with a nomination for the prestigious Sobey Art Award. He’s the third Inuit artist to receive this honour.
“I feel so proud that the work I’m doing is having such an impact, and it’s reaching a wide audience,” he said. “And I’m really proud to be representing Inuit art at this level, in the Canadian art world.”
Van Heuvelen has spent much of his life in Bowmanville, Ont., about an hour east of Toronto. But he was born in Iqaluit and regularly returns to visit there. He also has family in Kuujjuaq.
His path to becoming an artist started early, growing up with an Inuk mother and a Dutch father, both of whom had artistic bents.
“My mother is an artist. My father built the house we grew up in. A lot of the furniture was hand made, and objects in the house were hand made. My mom collected Inuit art. It was always just something that seemed the norm. It was only later that I realized there were people who didn’t know how to make things.”
These artistic leaning didn’t just rub off on Van Heuvelen. His sister, Lavinia Van Heuvelen, is a jeweller in Iqaluit.
Van Heuvelen went on to study art in university: he first took an undergraduate degree at York University, and later did a graduate degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which is renowned as a haven for conceptual artists.
Traditional Inuit hunting and fishing tools often serve as a starting point for van Heuvelen’s art. In a way, he says, they’re probably the first Inuit art forms that existed.
“Prior to Inuit settling in communities, there was no way making a living making art,” he said. “Our art production went into the things you used every day.”
“It wasn’t called art at that time—harpoon heads, fishing lures: some of them were really elaborately decorated at that time,” he said.
“Those kinds of objects don’t sit in the past, and the future isn’t separate. It’s a continuation. As much as things change, the way we move forward is based on the past. The types of objects and the reasons for making them shift, but the same traditions move forward.”
One thing that sets van Heuvelen apart from many other Inuit artists is the tools at his disposal. He uses 3D printers, laser cutters, and his own small foundry workshop to help create his art.
“I feel like I’m working in the same way as a lot of other Inuit artists, but also more exploratory in how I approach things,” he said.
Van Heuvelen’s shiny seal-skin balloons, which debuted at a celebration of Inuit culture in St. John’s, N.L. in October 2016 dubbed iNuit Blanche, came about from the artist reflecting on the similar shapes and purposes of the traditional avataq and the modern balloon.
“They’re both inflatables, and they’re both location markers. Balloons, you often put up to mark a location. Avataqs, you use them to track and tire an animal. An animal goes underwater, the avataq brings it back up, and you can see it again,” he said.
“I took some liberties and tried to make the balloon more seal-like. It became a really great way to engage audiences: a balloon is such a welcoming object. These balloons are big, shiny, and move around a lot. They’re about three feet tall. They’re hung really high, and they’re weighted down by a harpoon head. But they’re really approachable.”
Linking the two objects could also offer a non-confrontational way to begin discussions about the importance of seal-hunting to Inuit culture, said van Heuvelen. “They’re really approachable objects that let you start a conversation.”
Similarly, van Heuvelen’s qamutik-pallet hybrids came about from him wandering along the outskirts of Iqaluit and pondering the similar form and functions of these two commonplace objects. “They’re both used to transport goods, they’re both visually similar, they both play a big role in contemporary Inuit life, and they say a lot about how people live today,” he said.
“You look at a pallet and you don’t think twice about it. You see them everywhere. They’re a clear symbol of globalization and how we move things around, and that’s had an impact on the Arctic.”
An installation of giant fishing lures, called “Nitsiit,” currently on show at Sheridan College in Mississauga, Ont., was partly prompted by van Heuvelen’s own memories of fishing in Iqaluit, as well as the variety of tall tales he’s heard about fishing.
“Many people have these fishing stories, and they’re either about catching this enormous fish, or seeing a creature that completely changed your idea of the scale at which animals exist,” he said.
The aim of the lures, like the rest of his art, is to have viewers shift their perspective on things. “They’re in a public space, so they’re being used to attract the attention of the viewer,” he said. “So it’s putting people in the position of the fish: you’re looking up at the lures, and they’re floating above you.”