Culture Scouts To Do Sydney: Mardi Gras Museum of Love and Protest

Is there any event bigger for Sydney locals than Mardi Gras? Considering Queen Cher made an appearance, Culture Scouts thinks not.

For Mardi Gras week, the city becomes a hive of art, music, performance and partying, and there is an overwhelming amount of delectable things to do in Sydney.

The Art Gallery of NSW - one of Australia's oldest and biggest galleries - hosted a Queer Art: After Hours that saw young Australian DJs perform alongside Dominatrix Life Drawing, and Culture Scouts Dark Mofo tour favourite Betty ‘Sex Clown’ Grumble.

A favourite bar stop on our Sydney tour, The Bearded Tit, hosted the ‘Black Divaz’ with portraiture, live drag performances and live DJ sets. Culture Scouts tour guide and local artist Craig Bunker AKA Bunkwaa created some fabulous Gay-TMs for Sydney local’s to fabulously withdraw their cash  And of course, there’s the iconic parade down Oxford Street.

But while many Sydneysiders and beyond now fully embrace the LGBTQI pride event, forty years ago it was more like a riotous protest than a parade.

On the evening of June 24th 1978, a crowd of people began marching through Paddington towards Hyde Park. Chants of protest joined the sound of gay liberation anthems emanating from the small sound system on the back of a single flat-bed truck, driven by Lance Gowland. As activists took to the streets to protest the lack of human rights the LGBTQI community, the first ever Mardi Gras was born.

Photographer, Branco Gaica, and his now-wife, Libby, were invited to the march by a friend “who never showed.” He brought along his camera - a Nikon E2 - and a Metz flash and captured one of the most significant moments in Australian modern history.

Police try to direct protestors, 1978, Credit: Branco Gaica

Police try to direct protestors, 1978, Credit: Branco Gaica

“I thought it might be interesting,” he said, “...and it turned out to be really interesting”.

Although his speciality was (and still is) performing arts photography he accompanied protestors down the street: “having a chat” with activists and joining in with the passionate chants.

“As you can see from the photos, at the march people were smiling and happy,” he says. “In the bars everyone came out. This was Oxford Street - ‘out of the bars and into the street!’ ‘Stop police attacks on women, gays and blacks!’”

It wasn’t until protesters turned away from the designated Hyde Park, and started heading towards College Street that the protest became violent.  

“There were a couple of militant ladies and they started throwing garbage bins,” remembers Branco. “Then the police went berserk. People went berserk”

Protestors outside Darlinghurst Police Station, Credit: Branco Gaica

Protestors outside Darlinghurst Police Station, Credit: Branco Gaica

His photos taken after this moment show protesters and police outside Darlinghurst Police Station, as people were arrested and released.

It wasn’t until twenty years later, when Branco mentioned the experience to a younger man at a party “and his jaw dropped” when he learnt that Branco had original photos from the night, that the negatives of the original march were developed.

Branco looks at a booklet which uses his iconic 1978 Mardi Gras images, Credit: Culture Scouts

Branco looks at a booklet which uses his iconic 1978 Mardi Gras images, Credit: Culture Scouts

The iconic photos were recently shown at National Arts School for its Museum of Love and Protest (one of Culture Scouts favourite spots in Darlinghurst) to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Mardi Gras in a “collage … blown up pretty big”.

“The exhibition is on two levels,” explains Branco. “Downstairs there’s lots of photos (including Branco’s). Upstairs are the frocks that people wore. So, it’s really interesting - downstairs is militant, upstairs is celebratory.”

“Just the other day I got a call from a girl who was in one of the photos. She went to the exhibition and saw herself, and ordered a print.”

You can see images from the exhibition here.