What do objects say about Inuit culture?
This is one of the questions central to the practice of Couzyn van Heuvelen, a sculptor and installation artist recently shortlisted for the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award. Originally from Iqaluit, NU, and now based in Southern Ontario, van Heuvelen’s exploration of material, scale and production processes transform elements of Inuit culture into new, unexpected forms. From a 3-D printed fishing lure to a sled carved from stone, van Heuvelen’s work allows for a careful consideration to the meaning of material culture. We had the chance to speak with van Heuvelen about his work and career, from how he started in the field to who he makes his work for.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Qulliq (2021) Video still
Inuit Art Quarterly: Can you tell me about how you got your start as an artist?
Couzyn van Heuvelen: I think I always was an artist. My mom's an artist, and I have a lot of other family members who are artists. We grew up making things, making art. That was always something that I got a lot of satisfaction from, and something that I was always really good at. Becoming an artist as a profession came later, but it was a very gradual progression. Every chance I've had to lean into becoming an artist I’ve taken that opportunity. It's something that you keep committing to. Every time I look into calls for submissions, or start on a new project, or even get an idea and decide that's something I have to do, to make, that's a decision every single time to continue being an artist. So there are bigger moments. But mostly, it's the smaller ones.
IAQ: How has your career changed and grown over the last few years?
CvH: My approach hasn't changed dramatically, but there have been more opportunities. The kind of work I'm doing stems from the work I was doing four or five years ago, it's just that I've had more time and opportunities to explore those things. I think that's what’s led to growth. I've been able to build on ideas and give some real consideration to the same things that hold my interest.
IAQ: You're saying you feel like your work, or the approach to the work, hasn't necessarily changed but would you say there is a throughline or central question that you are asking or answering?
CvH: It's tough to put it into a nice package, but I think my practice has to do with the types of objects that are significant to Inuit culture, but it's more about what those objects say about Inuit culture—our past and our future, and what's going on right now. I'm a sculptor, so I think about objects, or maybe it's the other way around. I'm not totally satisfied with that answer. If I knew what that was, then maybe I wouldn't keep chasing it,
so I'm okay not being able to explain what my practice is very easily.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Ceramic Lure (2019) Ceramic and rope 50.8 x 50.8 x 101.6 cm
IAQ: What is it that drives you to make things—to make tangible things in the world?
CvH: I like objects, and there are things that I think are important in objects. Maybe they're not the most important thing, but they represent these bigger ideas or certain feelings or experiences, and I want other people to see those things the way that I do. So reimagining, reinterpreting an object, or making up an object, that’s a way to show people the power of that thing. Because you can't explain it all the time. But if you present it in a new way, or an unfamiliar way, then people will reconsider it. So I think that's a big part of it.
IAQ: We've seen that play out in your work in different ways, by reimagining materials, playing with scale, or utilizing a production process in a new way. I'm thinking of Inuk Pallet (2015) and Qamutiik (2014), works that flip or combine a pallet rack and a qamutik as similar objects in a way.
CvH: That pallet/qamutik comes out of seeing the relationship between these two different objects that have these huge similarities, and then getting really excited about what those two objects brought together into a new object means. I might not know right away, but there's something there worth exploring. Hopefully if I can make the work and then show you then there can be some kind of mutual understanding, so that people can see what I'm seeing.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Inuk Pallet (2015) Wood, rope, HPDE and screws
IAQ: There are archetypes in your work that you come back to investigate. Like the pattern of a sealskin pelt, as an avataq through this very pop-art format on a helium foil balloon in Avataq (2016), which has a certain kind of scale and relationship with a viewer; then to something like Sealskin Rug (2021), the piece you created for INUA, which is this extremely exaggerated size, and invites a different kind of physical relationship.
CvH: They both come out of thinking about our relationship with seals and sealskin. You have this avataq balloon that is playful and fun and invites the type of conversation that I want people to have, to think about seal hunting in a certain light. Then that's a seal skin as a kind of a tool–avataq being a hunting implement. This rug came out of being home a lot. So it's kind of a work about home. We use sealskin for comfort, for garments, for so many things. One of the things that I was imagining when I was making that work is how it would exist in the world. It uses the familiar technique within my practice, which is to make it really big. But by doing that, I can take one sealskin, and I can make it large enough that nearly my whole family could sit down [on]. I was imagining a feast and having this rug that could provide some comfort and support us and also thinking about the animal that also supports that type of gathering and experience.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Avataq (2016) Screenprinted mylar, ribbon, aluminum and helium 91 x 76 x 41 cm
IAQ: Do you have an audience in mind for your work? And is it the same audience for all of your pieces, or is it very individual based on the project?
CvH: The audience that I make work for is my family, my community. They're not necessarily the people who end up seeing the work in a lot of cases, the audience is much wider and opportunities to show my work up North are difficult to come by, so the audience that ends up seeing the work might be different than the audience I made the work for. And that might shape how the work evolves after I've made it or what it can mean but I'm always keeping that audience in mind when I'm making work.
IAQ: We've talked about Inuit ingenuity through tools and objects, but are there people that you admire, or who you think about when you're making work?
CvH: Yeah. Certainly. Kenojuak Ashevak is a huge inspiration.
Couzyn van Heuvelen Titiqtugarniq (2018) Stone, relief ink. Permanent installation at OCAD University in Toronto, ON
IAQ: What does it mean to you to be on the shortlist for an award that was created in her honour?
CvH: That's pretty huge. I think it speaks to her legacy, that she is an inspiration. And that she might also have led me here. And I don't know why I didn't see it in those terms sooner but, that's amazing. I'm really proud of that.
I think part of the impact she's had too is [her career has allowed] artists in my position to work within Inuit art, and be comfortable enough to do whatever it is we want to do. Not to have to make the artwork that people expect, but to make work that we want to make for ourselves and for our communities.
Read interviews with the other shortlisted artists
This interview was conducted by video call in August 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Join the shortlisted artists for a conversation about their work and contemporary Inuit art on Tuesday, August 24 at 7 PM EST on Zoom.
The winner of the 2021 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award will be announced on Wednesday, September 8 at 7pm EST via Zoom.
Register today to secure your seat!