Lena Nahlous: My Favourite Things

Diversity Arts Australia's executive director has been fighting racism and elitism since she was small. Here, she talks podcast obsessions and the power of persistence.

By Emily Brooks


Diversity Arts Australia's executive director has been fighting racism and elitism since she was small. Here, she talks podcast obsessions and the power of persistence.

By Emily Brooks

Lena Nahlous wants to see a true representation of Australia’s multi-cultural society on the walls of our art galleries, our screens and the shelves of our book stores. “Art reflects who we are as a society,” she says. “It tells our collective and individual stories, and creates archives that document our histories, so if some of us are absent or erased from this, it isn’t telling the full story. Erasure also impacts on our sense of identity and individual and collective self-esteem.”

Her commitment to “telling the full story” started young. Growing up, Lena experienced racism first-hand as the daughter of Arab immigrant parents. This spurred a career dedicated to fighting for social justice, tolerance and human rights, and a passion for amplifying underrepresented and marginalised voices in literature, art, film and theatre. Now, Lena is Diversity Arts Australia’s executive director and the presenter of their brilliant podcast The Colour Cycle.

Here, she talks that elusive quest for balance, reveals her extensive reading (and podcast) list, and reveals why persistence always pays off.

On Diversity

Often people talk about diversity as though some groups are “diverse”, but what they usually mean is that these groups are outside of the so-called mainstream culture, and in this sense terms like “diverse” can become quite othering. For me, diversity is about the reality of our society being reflected in the structures of government, power, the arts and cultural institutions and across work places and industries. Real diversity is also about shifting the power balance that exists not only in leadership and decision-making roles, but also in the structures themselves. Real diversity requires systemic change. In a workplace or in the arts or creative sector, diversity should enable an environment in which people  from a range of ethno-cultural and language groups, genders, socio-economic groups are represented and can contribute their perspectives and approaches, connections and networks and audiences. This also applies to arts, where films, music, performance and writing should reflect Australia’s diversity of stories, artists and audiences.

Art reflects who we are as a society, it tells our collective and individual stories and creates archives that document our histories, so if some of us are absent or erased from this, it isn’t telling the full story. Erasure also impacts on our sense of identity and individual and collective self-esteem. Australian writer Benjamin Law describes this exclusion as “quietly dehumanising”, and a form of “structural racism”, and talks about the negative impact this has on the well-being of children and young people. Art also has the power to help us to be reflexive, to take us into other worlds and lives and expose us to different ways of seeing, and to make us uneasy and uncomfortable. I recently read this quote on social media by rapper Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) which says: “Good art provides people with a vocabulary about things they can’t articulate” and I think this is also a truism.

I really believe in the work of Diversity Arts Australia (or DARTS for short). I’ve been engaged in, and committed to, social justice and equity since I was young, perhaps because of mine and my family’s own lived experience of anti-Arab racism. In the 90s I got involved in anti-racism and gender work, and this commitment has only grown in my work and life since then. Being in this role with DARTS provides an opportunity to work for change at a national level. The arts and creative sectors are slow to change, and although the arts can be avant garde and groundbreaking in some areas, they can also be elitist and employ many mechanisms to lock out non-white people along with underrepresented and marginalised people. Our recent report, Shifting the Balance measured the leadership in 200 cultural organisations (1,980 leaders) and found that over half of all of Australia’s arts, screen and creative organisations had no representation of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds despite these people comprising 39 percent of the population.

Artworks by artists L to R: Mona Hatoum, Karla Dickens and Blak Douglas

On Life & Culture

My life agenda is to work and live with purpose and meaning. In terms of career-wise, social justice and human rights are fundamental to my work and I’ve spent the past 20 years working to build opportunities and participation in the arts and creative sector for people who are marginalised – particularly women, young people, people from non-white migrant and refugee backgrounds and people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. As a parent, I want to be a good role model for my kids and to provide them with emotional, and social support and the capacity to think critically and act with integrity so that they can contribute to this world of ours. And to have more balance in my life, to make more time for life outside of work. There is so much reading and travelling to be done!

Name three inspiring women: There are too many to mention, but here’s a start: Faith Bandler (Australian civil rights activist), Bell Hooks (Black American feminist writer) and Mona Chalabi (Iraqi-British data journalist and media presenter).

Career motto: “Be persistent when you need to, it pays off.” Favourite artworks: It’s impossible for me to select one, but I really like the works of British Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, and of Australian First Nations artists Karla Dickens and Blak Douglas. I know these are not the most famous artworks of all time, but I need more time to think about this!

Favourite reads: This is an unfair question because I have so many favourite books. These days, as a parent with young children I like reading short stories and listening to audiobooks. For example, Roanna Gonsalves The Permanent Resident was a constant on my bedtime table for a long time. I couldn’t put down Phillip Pullman’s Dark Material’s trilogy and named by daughter after the 10-year old protagonist. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in school, and this had a big influence on me as a young person. Reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred was one of those life changing moments for me. And I like a good feminist and political graphic novel, like Marjane Satrapi’s Perspepolis. I also like Arab feminist writing; both fiction and non-fiction, particularly when I can find good translations. I’m currently reading Hanan Al-Shaykh’s The Occasional Virgin, but some of the translation is not that great.

Favourite people/accounts on Instagram: I have a love-hate relationship with social media since having kids. These days I mostly want to use it to share photos of my kids with friends! Favourite podcasts: It’s Not A Race and Stop Everything!, The Messenger (which can be emotionally distressing), Note to Self, RadioLab, Pretty for an Aboriginal, and WOW in the World (a really good kids podcast). I also have to mention that I’m really proud of The Colour Cycle podcast that Diversity Arts Australia produces and which I host. It’s a podcast that aims to disrupt cultural whitewashing – and asks why our arts and creative sectors don’t reflect the real diversity of Australia, and what would need to happen to change this. I’ve had some great conversations.

Words to live by: “The decision you made at the time you made it, was the right decision for that time.” That was something my dad taught me. Coolest historic figure: Cleopatra.

Outfield, Ashfield; Sahra by the River, Parramatta

On Sydney

Favourite cafe: Outfield in Ashfield. There are only a few tables, so they provide picnic rugs that people can take outside and use to sit on the grass. It’s on the grounds of a big park, so the kids can run around and play. They have some seriously yummy food and good gluten-free options for people like me! Restaurant: Sahra by the River in Parramatta and La Shish Lebanese Restaurant in Guildford. Both meet my two requirements: excellent food and kid-friendly. 

Favourite gallery: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. It’s an amazing space — built within a decommissioned power station — with some solid programming and exhibitions. It’s also on Georges River and surrounded by bushland, with bellbirds nearby, so the experience is relaxing and refreshing. They have an excellent children and young peoples’ festival called WOW (Way Out West) that my kids and I never miss. Dream day in your neighbourhood? Going to one of the local parks for a picnic and play with family and friends. 

The Pacesetters planning session. L to R, Paschal Berry, Project Creative Producer; Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Musician, Performance Artist; Lena Nahlous, Project Creative Director; Latai Taumoepeau, Performance Artist, Culutral Activist; Fadia Abboud, Filmmaker

Best Of Lena

Beauty routine: I’m a busy working mum with children, so it’s very simple — I cleanse in the morning, and at night, and moisturise and do a more intensive moisturising face mask when I can find the time (in theory every week). Having time to put a bit of make-up on is a bonus, but these days I’ve been getting lectures from my daughter against wearing make-up! I tell her that in the same way that she likes to paint her face sometimes, so do I. Style: In terms of fashion, I’ve always been drawn to the cuts and styles of the Sixties and I also like a bit of what I call ‘Arab girl glam’. Since having children, I’m more concerned with comfort, but I still like a bit of glam for special events.

Favourite holiday destination: Queensland — My family usually go there with other family members and meet up with family who live there. We love the beaches and the relaxed atmosphere, and spending time with family away from the busy-ness of our everyday lives. Place you’d like to visit next: We are planning to visit Lebanon next year, the homeland of both of my parents. To relax: I spend time with my children and their friends and families. It’s amazing how kids introduce you to a whole new set of activities and families. We’re now planning our first camping trip, which isn’t something I have done before.  Having a nice massage, facial or going to the salt rooms are also ways that I like to relax.

Best advice from your mum: My mum has dished out funny and random advice over the years. When I was a kid and got racist taunts from boys in my school, she would tell me that one day they’d ask me to go out with them and I should tell them “no”.  Not sure how helpful this was to me as a 10-year-old. She also always said that “haters are just jealous”, so anytime someone treated me badly as a child, she said it meant they were jealous. But seriously, her best advice has been to not let what happened yesterday stop me from moving forward, and doing the work that I need to do today and tomorrow. And my mum instilled in me the strong belief that people were equal regardless of their ethno-cultural backgrounds.

Favourite thing about Australia: The diversity of languages, people, and cultures, and being able to have friends and relationships with people who come from different continents and life experiences. I might not have had this same opportunity if I had grown up in Lebanon. Also, being able to access education as a female. My mum always talked about how she was not being allowed to go to school in Lebanon, and so I often think about how fortunate I’ve been to access education and how I need to take advantage of this.

Lena Nahlous will be speaking at the next Future Women Social Club, in partnership with the City of Parramatta and Parramatta Artists’ Studios, on October 21 at 5:30pm. She will be joined by Zimbabwean/Australian advocate, artist and TEDx speaker Moreblessing Maturure in the heart of Western Sydney, as they explore how the arts community can enrich its diversity of cultural expression. For more information and to RSVP click here