Nuno Carrascalao in Timorese tais with pieces of his Mardi Gras float
Nuno Carrascalão's Mardi Gras parade float features elements of Timor-Leste culture and heritage. Image by Esther Linder/AAP PHOTOS
  • arts, culture and entertainment

Mardi Gras float honours Timorese heritage and struggle

Esther Linder March 2, 2024

At a nondescript storage unit in Sydney’s inner west, threads from across East Timor are coming to life.

Pink palm trees, woven fabrics, costume sketches and a gilded headdress line the walls of the workshop and studio where Nuno Carrascalão is preparing for the Mardi Gras parade alongside prop designer Jake Stewart.

In one corner stands the partially built top of the Timorese parade float, a silver structure with a circular base and thatched roof of reflective plastic.

It represents an uma lulik, a Timorese traditional home, built to honour ancestors and encourage reflection. It will be festooned with metres of tais, a multi-coloured fabric woven throughout East Timor which is recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage.

“For a country that’s been through so much trauma, and so many atrocities … they’ve banded together,” Mr Carrascalão said.

Nuno Carrascalão with performers from the East Timor Mardi Gras float
 Nuno Carrascalão and performers will celebrate Timorese heritage and culture at the Mardi Gras. Image by Esther Linder/AAP PHOTOS 

A lifelong creative, Mr Carrascalão began marching in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade in 1987, and only returned to East Timor for the first time in 2023 after fleeing war. 

East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and occupied until 1999. Up to 300,000 people were killed by Indonesian forces over the occupation’s length, regarded by many academics as a form of genocide. 

The nation remains one of the poorest in the Asia-Pacific region, largely dependent on oil and gas revenue since gaining independence in 2002.

Many of Mr Carrascalão’s relatives were killed during the conflict and his immediate family escaped on a catamaran, landing in Darwin in 1975 just after Cyclone Tracy had hit the northern city.

“As a six-year-old you kind of view everything through wide eyes,” he told AAP while recounting stories of hiding from army trucks and hearing grenades in his street, to sleeping in the open in the aftermath of the Northern Territory’s catastrophic cyclone.

“It was like, from the frying pan into the fire, where all of a sudden we’re in this place where everything was demolished already,” he said laughingly. 

His youth, growing up in the wake of the White Australia Policy as well as aggressive anti-LGBTQI sentiment at the height of the AIDS pandemic, has informed his unapologetic dedication to his craft and his people.

“You’re facing racism as well as the LGBT stuff – growing up in the western suburbs … and coming into town and doing drag,” he said.

“There’s so many layers of like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’.”

East Timor’s overwhelmingly Catholic population is, in contrast to many other nations, largely supportive of queer people and equal rights for gender-diverse individuals. 

“It’s a nice lesson for how religion and faith and the LGBTQI movement can live together or have that same respect, without them having to denounce their faith because of bigotry or because of oppression,” Mr Carrascalão said.

“(Homosexuality is) still illegal in Indonesia, still illegal in Malaysia … so as a beacon of hope for the region, it’s incredible for Timor-Leste to have gotten this far to have that much.”

Singapore legalised sexual activity between consenting men in 2022, and homosexuality remains largely a taboo topic throughout much of the Asia-Pacific region.

Jake Stevens and Nuno Carrascalao in the studio workshop
 Prop designer Jake Stevens is helping create Nuno Carrascalão’s Timorese-themed Mardi Gras float. Image by Esther Linder/AAP PHOTOS 

The annual Pride parade in East Timor’s capital Dili is in its infancy, but Mr Carrascalão has met with President Jose Ramos-Horta, a distant cousin, to organise the next march ending at the presidential residence as a sign of support.

The float he has made, including the uma lulik house and tais fabrics, has been designed to pack down so it can be taken to Dili. 

Mr Carrascalão also created the Angels of Dili, ambassadors from the regions of East Timor, that walk as guardians wearing custom-made wings.

“It’s also a good lesson for Australia, as well for the Western world, to be able to see the resilience of this country that’s gotten to this place so fast,” he said of the broader community embracing queer members of Timorese society. 

Marching in the parade alongside Nuno’s creations will be a drumming band of 10 trans Timorese artists, who have raised funds to fly to Sydney from Dili.

The group has been financially supported by global law firm DLA Piper, which has provided pro bono advice to the East Timor government since 2008. 

In 2013, the firm acted as East Timor’s legal counsel in the International Court of Justice case brought against Australia over maritime boundaries and sovereignty of oilfields in the Timor Sea, which resulted in a treaty in 2018 giving the nation ownership of the natural resource. 

Nicolas Patrick, partner and head of responsible business at DLA Piper, told AAP the longstanding connection with East Timor was part of a global perspective on need and development in the Asia-Pacific.

“It’s really about looking around and saying, ‘where are the people, communities and countries that are vulnerable, where is their inequality?’,” he said. 

Mr Carrascalão says it is a full circle moment to bring Pride to Dili, referencing the links between East Timor fighting against oppression during the civil war and today’s advocacy for queer rights.

“The common thread is that the fight for independence is the same fight for equality, it’s about marching against oppression,” he said. 

He is greatly optimistic for his homeland’s future, as well as for the opportunities between Australia and its neighbour.

“It only benefits Australia for Timor-Leste to thrive because then it benefits the region,” Mr Carrascalão said.

With a 2024 theme of ‘Our Future’, the Mardi Gras parade will celebrate throughout the streets of Sydney on Saturday.