Australasian Animal Studies Association

Vanessa Barbay, Day and Night (Autumn Cockatoo and Flying Fox) 2011/2019. Cockatoo, flying fox, silk stitch, bitumen, oil, caput mortuum, pipeclay and rabbit skin glue on canvas.


Road boundaries kill animals, like this flying fox and white cockatoo in Canberra 2011. I dissolve the boundary between animal subject and art object by placing decomposing animals on canvas to infest the weave. After documenting their disintegrated remains, I steep the rancid cloth in vinegar and hang it in the elements to cure before stretching onto a wooden frame. I seal the evocative bodily stain or shroud with hot rabbit skin glue and spend weeks, months, or years, in its presence. In 2019, I felt drawn to this shroud and its accompanying photographs of decayed subjects, my two younger children running in a field, their loyal father in his cowboy hat, and two white cockatoos watching from dead trees in the dry Monaro. I apply the bitumen and oil of Europeans to depict the dead creatures, and sacred pipeclay given by a recently deceased Aboriginal mentor negotiates the ground.


Raised in Vincentia, Yuin country, where my mother has also been all her life, I descend from local pioneers Gloria and Keith Sheehy. I attended High school with kids from the Wreck Bay and East Nowra Aboriginal communities, which had a positive cultural impact on me. I lived for many years in Wiradjuri country in the west of the state where I completed my visual art degree in 1993, undertook community murals, completed illustration work with Wiradjuri storyteller Pauline McLeod and held numerous exhibitions. I also taught art theory, painting and drawing at TAFE. In 2013 I completed a PhD in painting at the Australian National University in Canberra focusing on rock paintings in Western Arnhem Land and learning the language and culture of the Kunwinjku of Kunbarlanja while living in the remote community and working at Injalak Art Centre. My practice-led research in Kunbarlanja involved learning the cultural significance, collection and preparation of plant dyes and mineral earth pigments. In 2013/14 I was a visiting artist fellow at the ANU working on cross-cultural collaborative paintings with childhood friend Theresa Ardler, a Gweagal/Dharawal woman from Wreck Bay. My work and research can be viewed on my blog

My PhD research also involved pioneering a method of image generation through the creation of animal shrouds or decomposition printing. This technique evolved from formative exposure to my father Tibor Barbay’s taxidermy practice. My father created a Home museum of natural history called Barbay’s Nature Display and would often exhibit his wares at the Lady Denman markets. Due to completion of a Bundanon residency in 2015 I was able to initiate a retrospective of my father’s life’s work at Riversdale as part of the 2015 Siteworks festival after he passed away in September. I returned to live in Vincentia during 2014 after 20 years away and continue to work with Aboriginal friends and colleagues on cross-cultural education projects (I am currently Co Founder and Executive Assistant Secretary of Guramaa Global Indigenous Corporation, a non-profit company working to embed Indigenous perspectives within primary and high school curriculums). I also undertake community mural projects and artist residencies, conduct art workshops and exhibit regularly. My current practice continues to focus on the husk or shell left behind by animals after death alongside the ghostly imprint made during decomposition.


Vanessa Barbay, Gift (Autumn Rosella) 2010. Rosella, sap and rabbit skin glue on canvas. 79 x 82 cm