Lara Nicholls, Timor-Leste Commission: tais, culture and resistance, Australian War Memorial, 24 October 2023
In 2021, the Australian War Memorial commissioned four traditional woven tais cloths from the LO’UD Cooperative (Koperativa LO’UD), a women’s weaving collective based in the Lautem Municipality of Timor-Leste. Founded in 2003, the collective brings together three weaving groups, two in Los Palos and another in the highlands of Iliomar. The name LO’UD signifies the interaction between communities and the mutual cooperation, honesty, and equality shared amongst its people.
Tais are considered of such importance to East Timorese culture that they were added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2021. The four tais in the Memorial’s collection were selected by LO’UD for their cultural and ritual value. According to cultural lore, they are traditionally worn by a prospective bride during a reciprocal exchange ceremony when two families join in marriage. Cultural protocol guides each stage of the ceremony, with the tais representing unity between the families. Tais are worn by both men and women, symbolising the equal role women play in the exchange.
Tais are the most enduring cultural art form of Timor-Leste. Tais weaving brings generations of women together, expressing the strong sense of community in Timor-Leste, despite decades of violence, oppression and poverty. Tais symbolise the bravery and resilience of the East Timorese resistance movement during Indonesian occupation. LO’UD Cooperative was founded by female resistance fighters.
The four tais acquired by the Memorial relate to the traditions and rituals of the villages where LO’UD members originate. Many of the stripes and colours woven alongside the futus (ikat) panels contain symbols and concepts particular to their community. The futus weaving process includes resist dying techniques in which the threads are dyed before weaving commences. The tais created by LO’UD Cooperative are made with a mix of plant-dyed cotton and commercially dyed cotton, symbolising the merging of traditional and contemporary life in Timor-Leste.
Tais Nunukala was woven in Savarika Village by Olympia da Cruz, with warp threads prepared by the Los Palos Weaving Group. The traditional cotton was hand-dyed by master dyer Olinda Madeira. Nunukala means “orange mouth”, which is represented by the two orange bands at the edge of the cloth. This cloth is distinctive for its large sections of dark organic dyed cotton and the panels of futus weaving. The futus sections are decorated with symbols of Kawaili – gecko – which live amongst Timorese families.
In traditional weddings, women wear three tais. Aunts and sisters from the bride and groom’s families dress the bride for the marriage ceremony. It is considered bad luck for the mother to be part of this process. Nunukala is the first of the three tais the women place on the bride.
Tais Pailale was woven by Sabina dos Santos with warp threads prepared by the Fuat Weaving Group in Fuat Viallage in Iliomar. The cotton was hand-dyed by master dyer Olinda Madeira. It features rows of white flowers, on a rich red background known as Aipun Rusa, woven using a technique known as Meli-meli. These flowers are unique to tais woven in Iliomar. The symbol of the rose has been passed down matrilineal lines over many generations, sacred designs that must be included in the Tais Pailale. This tais is the second of the three cloths placed on the bride during the marriage ceremony.