Carnivale and shape-shifting in a time of pandemic By Michele Helmrich

The works of Judith Wright perhaps shape-shift the viewer into a different mindset. A rational view gives way to a landscape of shadows and fledgling dreams, populated by fragments of creatures, human and otherwise.

Above and about us, a cast of animals from farm and zoo, nature, home and spirit oscillate in a mobile of many parts, their flipsides revealing human faces. Painted on oddly shaped scraps of wood, faces and body parts are sometimes suspended one under the other in twos or threes, further animating this strangely happy flock. Have they found release from story books and toys? Their graphic quality suggests such a link with childhood. An elephant, a merry goat, a cat with pointy ears and wicked eyes, perky birds with upturned beaks, some linked to placid fish, human faces whose nose and mouth have become separate entities, and are they birds with wings, a bat, and a snake and a caterpillar with wings?

If a certain cheer gives life to this parade of what William Blake might have described as “fishes, birds & beasts,” a darkness also lingers. For Covid Carnivale (2020) has arisen from a time of menace and foreboding. Parades have previously featured in Wright’s work, notably A journey (2011–12).1 That installation comprises a range of antique mannequins, dolls and masked beings (animal masks included) and equally antique wheeled or water-borne vehicles as if on a journey into the Underworld. Elements of the grotesque undermine any nostalgia and curiosity carried by these vintage items. The work’s haunting quality is reinforced by the knowledge of Wright’s having experienced the death of an infant daughter, a personal tragedy that silently inserts its presence throughout her work. Dance, and with it movement, drama and storytelling, is likewise close at hand, given that Wright was once a dancer with the Australian Ballet.

The turning painted animals in Covid Carnivale play a key role in generating a sense of the carnivalesque and carry historical references. Wright advises that she had earlier considered titling the work Covid Creatures. We might think, for instance, of how animals were regarded as “familiars” for witches in early modern England, spirits that “could assume the appearance of a range of animals, as well as shape-shifting to that of a human” – remember the human faces that appear on the reverse side of Wright’s floating animals.2 In another example, the Morris dancers of English folk culture have for centuries celebrated seasonal festivals, their members on occasion wearing the mask of a “Beast”, be it horse (or hobbyhorse), ram, bull or boar, or one more mythological, such as dragon or unicorn.3

The dances and festivals that stemmed from medieval carnivals provided cyclical moments of anarchy, parody and bodily transgressions, as argued by Mikhail Bakhtin in his study Rabelais and His World. For Bakhtin, the “folk culture of laughter” offered a “complete withdrawal of the present order,” in his case a withdrawal from the stringencies of Stalinist Russia. By such means, the rawness of folk humour – eccentric and profane – and the inversions of carnival possessed the potential to upset established hierarchies and regenerate official culture.4 In encapsulating such a topsy-turvy endgame, carnival did not present itself as spectacle (as today’s Morris dancing may have become) but as a moment when all were participants.

For Wright, ideas of the carnivalesque coalesce with childhood memories of the circus at her hometown of Tewantin: “In those little country towns, the circus came periodically and it was a big deal, it was both scary and exciting.”5 Children at that time crammed ringside under the Big Top awaiting the Grand Parade as the  band struck up, then were scared and enthralled by the lions, the balancing acts, the elephants, the bareback riders, the flying trapeze, and the clowns.6 In other contexts and times we might think of the anarchic antics found in comedy such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the new generations of diverse forms of cabaret, burlesque, magic, comedy and circus who perform in the Spiegeltent and a multitude of contemporary venues.

Such forebears may inform Wright’s recent work, Nature/Nurture (2020), to be exhibited in Sydney in 2021.7 Here fertility and growth again descend from above, in the form of a cascade of flying breasts. Accompanying large paper works feature images of phallic trees that are associated with early modern ideas of witchcraft and sorcery, and threats to male sexuality. 8Such an unruly celebration of the female body harks back to feminist celebrations of the 1970s, to Bakhtin’s ideas of eccentric and profane humour in folk culture, and to Surrealism.

The carnival and its sense of the grotesque is tempered somewhat in Covid Carnivale. Much like the Morris dancer dressed as a dragon, interaction with the crowd and its children is to cheekily scare rather than terrorise. A separate series of large-scale paper works, the somewhat scarred Japanese paper pinned to the wall, are minimal and melancholic in tone, an aspect reinforced by Wright’s frequent use of deep purples and blues with contrasting highlights of oranges and yellows. Most are accompanied by freestanding body parts – grotesque eyes, lips, mouths – body parts that Wright notes are regarded as “entry points” for the virus.9 Winged lips with a fringe of hair stand before a large heart-shaped face with great pensive upturned eyes, the decorative motif covering the scalp becoming misshapen arms and legs. In another, a winged, toothy open mouth (if not a vagina dentata) with hair sprouting below like a beard stands before the partial golden orb of a baby’s face near an undefined, perhaps maternal, body. In yet another, a winged eye, rimmed with hair, may signify “second sight” when placed before the large image of a goat straining within its orange border.10 As Charlotte Rose-Millar has noted: “Goats were not just symbols of lust but also of the Devil,” a symbol with the potential to emphasise “the witch’s links with diabolical agency.”11 In this case, the “diabolical agency” was wielded within the artist’s own biography.

In a series of smaller pinned sheets, one features an image of two faces or heads overlapping, a motif that is found in some of the larger paper works, and in Wright’s earlier series. One face appears to be that of an infant, as if willing the lost child close to the mother. On one sheet an image resembling a Lingam – a symbol in Hinduism representing the Lord Shiva and popularly believed to represent a phallus – suggests fertility, and is here overlaid by the ovoid shapes of the feminine (though, in their ambiguity, these forms could also be faces). On another is the figure of a sprite, above the outline of a pregnant woman. Alone on a sheet is a strange mythological hybrid creature with the head of a duck and the body of a horse, amiable rather than fearsome. Then, when the two profiles meet, their foreheads touching, an arresting hand could equally be read as a sign of abrupt finality or a moment of union and blessing. Has the spirit of the lost child returned from the Underworld or has she been bid farewell? Perhaps instead we welcome new life.

Covid Carnivale marks these moments of remembrance at a time when each of us must contemplate our mortality. This carnival may yet be a danse macabre.


  1. A journey (2011–12) is now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, where it was included in the exhibition LURID BEAUTY: Australian Surrealism & Its Echoes in 2015.
  2. Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 262.
  3. Chloe Metcalfe, “Animals and Beasts,” in Beginners’ Guide: English Folk Costumes, revised edition, London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2015, 45–48, accessed 13 January 2021,; Phil Underwood, “The Morris Ring Animal Archive,” last modified 4 January 2005,
  4. Rabelais and His World was first published in Russian in 1965 under the title Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; Renate Lachmann, Raoul Eshelman, and Marc Davis, “Bakhtin and Carnival: Culture as Counter-Culture,” Cultural Critique, no. 11 (1988): 115, 118, 132, 139, accessed 12 January 2021,
  5. Conversation with the artist, 14 January 2021.
  6. For a taste of the circus in this era, see the video “Behind the Big Top,” 1948, A P.J.P. Production, “Australian Circus Shows, Performers and History,” The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, accessed 14 January 2021,
  7. Conversation with the artist, 14 January 2021.
  8. A painting of a phallus tree by Wright was exhibited in Second Sight: Witchcraft, Ritual, Power at The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, in 2019.
  9. Conversations with the artist, 28 November 2020, 14 January 2021.
  10. Works by Wright titled Second Sight (2018–2019) were included Second Sight at UQ Art Museum, Brisbane, in 2019.
  11. Charlotte Rose-Millar, “Witches in History,” Second Site, UQ Art Museum, accessed 12 January 2021,

Michele Helmrich is an independent writer and curator living in Brisbane.