Couzyn van Heuvelen’s BAIT captures what is made available once the middleman is out of the picture. The exhibition’s nine objects ask many of us to reconsider any readymade, objectifying distinctions between Inuit tools and artworks.
The negated “middleman” in question could be Franz Boas or Marius Barbeau, figures whose practice of salvage anthropology was an example of colonialism’s discursive violence, removing objects from their context and speaking for them. For the salvage anthropologist, the apparent rationale was knowledge building and cultural preservation, but only in the ossified form of relics.
van Heuvelen, an Inuk sculptor, repurposes Inuit hunting and fishing tools, notably the nitsik (lure), rescuing such objects from the enormous condescension of the settler-colonial paradigm. Adapting this line from E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, I finish constructing a critical framework for approaching the work. But BAIT is mostly not for me, another middleman.
“It is my community that I’m making work for, responding to, trying to connect with or contribute to,” van Heuvelen remarked in an interview with Camille Georgeson-Usher and Bryan Winters. “I’m working within my culture, and so the audience I’m speaking to is Inuit. Not exclusively certainly, but the elements are for them.”
Thus I mistrust metaphor as I move through the exhibition at the Owens, believing that my associations might be just so many ways of not seeing the work. Which is not to abdicate my responsibility as a reviewer, but rather to acknowledge what BAIT beckons me to acknowledge, i.e., my position as a miseducated settler.
The first place I look is down, as I’m in the path of Stone Qamutiik. I’ve never encountered such a sled stationary, emptied of passengers and cargo. I can look closely at the dark, ornate soapstone—its white flecks as hints of snow—and the “V-shapes” the rope makes on the side of the runners, how they look like pendants.
The gallery walls display a numbered series, each titled Nitsik and enlarged to the point where they’d be just tall enough to ride a rollercoaster. These lures are made with various materials, from the wood, caribou hide, and artificial sinew of Nitsik 10 to the aluminum, stainless steel, and aircraft cable of Nitsik 12. Not all of them have hooks, either. Two hang side-by-side, beamingly artificial in neon green and orange, transformed transplants from the Fishing Gear & Accessories aisle at Canadian Tire. This range of materials and forms indicates van Heuvelen’s interest in the conversations that can open up through fabrication and enlargement as opposed to the narrower framing of more direct reproductions.
“With these fishing lures, they’re big, a lot of them are shiny, some of them are holographic, they’re different materials,” van Heuvelen told Georgeson-Usher and Winters. “They’re alluring! They’re working as a lure. So they are the bait. Then once you’ve got somebody’s attention, you get to talk about these other things, and you get to engage with people, and you get to share.”
A work like Avataq is emblematic of the exhibition’s engagement with Inuit subsistence hunting and fishing practices. Ten helium-inflated mylar balloons seem to hang from the floor. Because as avataq each is floating on the water, allowing the implied hunter to track their harpooned prey. The bait for the wrong kind of attention is the sealskin pattern that van Heuvelen has painted on the balloons since we should be looking at the floor. The ribbon of each balloon is tied to a piece of aluminum—significantly, these anchors are sakkui (harpoon heads). For a Boas or a Barbeau, it would be enough to show such implements, situating them mistakenly—but no less devastatingly—as artifacts of a disappearing culture. Removing them from their original context and remediating such objects, BAIT does not teach anyone who does not already know how an avataq works how an avataq works. Why should it? Rather, in bridging but preserving the distance between the gallery and the North, van Heuvelen’s objects come alive with their own meanings. They are enduring expressions of qaujimajatuqangit, which as curator Ryan Rice notes “plainly translates from Inuktitut to English as ‘ways of knowing.’” These ways draw us into critically (re)thinking the ongoing dialogue between mediation and indigenous communities, with a corresponding emphasis on cultural continuity.
“Those kinds of objects don’t sit in the past, and the future isn’t separate,” van Heuvelen has said. “It’s a continuation. As much as things change, the way we move forward is based on the past.”