Lena Nahlous from Diversity Arts Australia

Pictured: Lena Nahlous. Photo: Salty Dingo

Australia’s arts are still failing when it comes to diversity. But Lena Nahlous says there are other ways to look at it. 

While the arts landscape has changed a lot since she kicked off her career two decades ago, the struggle to diversify it beyond what Nahlous calls a ‘Euro-American canon’ is still ongoing.

Lena Nahlous has worked for over 20 years in the arts, carving out pathways to increase cultural diversity in the industry and ensuring that artists, arts workers, producers, and directors are given all the right resources – not only to find their voices, but also to ultimately become leaders in the sector. For this work, Nahlous was recently awarded the prestigious Carla Zampatti Arts and Culture Medal, which recognises individuals who have promoted cultural understanding and artistic endeavours within culturally and linguistically diverse communities. However, when I ask her how it felt to receive the award, she acknowledges it as a “welcome surprise” but swiftly passes the credit onto the various teams and collaborators that she has worked with over the years. 

Nahlous is the CEO and executive producer of Diversity Arts Australia, an organisation that focuses on supporting people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and migrant and refugee backgrounds in Australia’s arts scene with training and development, as well as working with organisations to ensure that people with diverse experience are not only finding their way into the arts, but thriving within them. 

Australia’s arts sector, including its major arts, screen and cultural organisations, is still flailing woefully when it comes to representation of CALD workers. This lack of representation is particularly stark when it comes to leadership in the arts. According to a 2019 report from Diversity Arts Australia, more than one in three Australians have a CALD family background, and yet only nine per cent of the leaders of major cultural institutions are CALD Australians. 

Nahlous also notes that Diversity Arts Australia is patently aware of how race and gender can intersect in the arts to the disadvantage of many. Research conducted by the organisation showed that, while many arts workers’ livelihoods hung in the balance over the course of successive COVID lockdowns, it was CALD and First Nations women who saw a loss of income greater than most groups. All of this is, frustratingly, in spite of evidence that CALD communities are also some of our most voracious consumers of the arts. 

The systemic barriers on the pathway to arts careers for CALD Australians is something that Nahlous recognised from a young age, having grown up as the child of Arab migrants in Western Sydney, with a passion for writing and the visual arts. “I was often told, whether it was in words or other ways, that you can have these things as hobbies but really there’s no viable career for you in terms of becoming an artist or becoming a writer,” Nahlous recalls. 

Starting out her career working with Arab Council Australia, Nahlous ran programs with young people to increase literacy and numeracy with tutoring – but she says that it was the arts opportunities that really brought young people to life. 

“We’d bring in a dramaturg and a director to put on a performance and film projects and writing projects – that’s when I saw real transformation for those young people who I worked with,” Nahlous says. “It wasn’t that everyone needed to become an artist, but just having that opportunity to tell a story or to perform or to create something, I could see that that was the area that change really happened in.” 

It was in this convergence of community and arts work that Nahlous discovered her passion and, despite the prevailing snobbery (her word) of the arts towards the community arts space, she was determined to make a difference in this space. “The arts and creativity are really powerful in terms of being able to support communities to tell their own stories on their own terms,” Nahlous reflects. 

Lena Nahlous is the CEO and executive producer of Diversity Arts Australia.

Lena Nahlous is the CEO and executive producer of Diversity Arts Australia. Photo: Salty Dingo

When I ask Nahlous if she has seen any dramatic progress in the years that she’s been working, I can practically hear her grinning through the phone and she tells me that she loves answering this question. For a start, she says, CALD communities have always been involved in the arts, whether we acknowledge this in the mainstream or not. “We know that most communities have various forms of arts practices in their lives, whether it be music, performance, or theatre, but when it comes to migrant communities and underrepresented culturally diverse communities, those arts forms are not funded and supported and don’t often main mainstream exhibition spaces or stages,” she says. 

The fact of these ongoing cultural practices within communities was actually reinforced to Nahlous in recent years, after her father’s passing. Nahlous says that when he arrived in Australia on a boat, he brought with him a beautiful oud, a stringed instrument that she described as “a bit like a guitar but way more beautiful”. Unfortunately, in the years following his death, the instrument broke – but Nahlous sourced somebody to repair it, a Lebanese man in his 80s in Sydney who had been making the instruments for his whole life. “If you’re not in that community, then you wouldn’t even know that someone like that exists,” Nahlous explains. 

While the arts landscape has changed a lot since she kicked off her career two decades ago, the struggle to diversify Australia’s arts scene beyond what Nahlous calls a ‘Euro-American canon’ is still ongoing, with entrenched structural issues that need to be addressed. But Nahlous also acknowledges that there also appears to be a critical mass of workers and organisations who are now calling for equity principles and practices. 

As for what young CALD people entering Australia’s arts sector can do to ensure their own career survival, Nahlous points towards organisations and collectives that can help to support them, including literacy movements like Sweatshop and film companies like the Asian-led Phoenix Eye, both based in Western Sydney. Speaking with some determined optimism, Nahlous says that there are a lot more opportunities now for young creatives, particularly in starting their careers by simply producing and publishing their own work online. All of this, she says, gives her hope that her work is finally making inroads. 

“The arts reflect back to us who we are but they also reflect our aspirations and our frustrations… I think the arts are a really critical way of bringing together community and connecting us to each other in this incredibly wonderful, diverse country.”