Noris Ioannou leads a colourful nexus

Over the last 25 years NEXUS has been the key multicultural arts organisation in South Australia. NATALIE LIVADITIS speaks to its Director, Noris Ioannou about the joys and challenges of working for a small arts organisation which does wonderful work.

Five years ago, Adelaide’s leading multicultural arts centre was facing an uncertain future. Founded in 1984 by a group of ethnic artists and performers, the government had flagged a withdrawal in funding from the not-for-profit organisation.

It was not until Dr Noris Ioannou took up the role of Executive Director at NEXUS that things began to change for the better.

“When I came in, the centre was creaky around the edges and the government was looking at closing the organisation,” explains Ioannou.

Head-hunted for the role, Ioannou accepted. He recounts the initial surprise at being elected for the job.
“I laughed because I’d never been trained to be an executive director and I started as a novice director. I can safely say now with confidence that we have a fantastic profile.”

Over the phone, Ioannou exudes a warm and infectious enthusiasm. He speaks passionately about every topic. In the background I catch snippets of laughter. It is no surprise he possesses the ability to bring people from all cultures together.

Today, along with four staff, Ioannou has restored the organisation into a thriving, cutting edge arts arena, transforming NEXUS into the top multicultural arts centre in Australia.

This year NEXUS will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

“No other sister centre is doing what we are doing,” he said.

We had a Greek papa, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim speakers talking about the links between their faith and their food rituals. Afterwards, the audience asked questions and we set up trestle tables with all the different food and people went around and sampled – we called it the ‘interface platter’.

Ioannou brought to the role an accomplished academic career. He is a cultural historian and the author of a staggering seven books on Australia’s visual arts and crafts, cultural heritage and multiculturalism. He is also an avid food and wine connoisseur and an exhibited painter. In the past, Ioannou has been a Peer Advisor for the Australia Council, a Member of the State Heritage Authority and past President of the Association of Professional Historians.

NEXUS operates through six major art streams including performing arts, visual art exhibitions, seminars, workshops and forums on bridging communities – it is the largest among its sister centres.

NEXUS’ focus is to attract new migrants, youth, established culturally and linguistically diverse communities, academics and professional artists.
“We are not just an entertainment centre. What we are operating is an arts and social networking hub. This is a place where you can get diverse artists to nurture a mix of creativity, to connect and share experiences,” he said.

Getting people to connect remains the driving force behind many of the programs instituted by Ioannou so far.
He did away with the centre’s former motto, “workshopping multiculturalism through the arts” to a revised “nurturing cultural diversity through the arts”.

Based on this new vision, NEXUS brings together artists from various backgrounds into a single creative space, forging new art forms and generating social harmony¬† within Adelaide’s community.
“We employ artists and give them opportunities, but our new motto reflects more of what we are doing.”
“Its cultural diversity driving creativity,” said Ioannou.

“A lot of arts organisations have the motto ‘arts for arts sake’. But the arts have a social duty.”
Abraham’s Supper was a forum created by Ioannou last year. Over 130 people gathered to experience various traditional cuisines accompanied by leading religious speakers from different cultures.
“We had a Greek papa, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim speakers talking about the links between their faith and their food rituals.

Afterwards, the audience asked questions and we set up trestle tables with all the different food and people went around and sampled – we called it the ‘interface platter’.

By the end, we had a Muslim talking to a Greek papa, a Buddhist talking to a Hindu. It was fantastic.”
The forum has proved so successful that it’s been repeated four times.

Another program under Ioannou’s direction was last June’s forum Mid-June Mediterranean Sunlight. The event fused Greek rembetika with tango, jazz and a Byzantine choir.

“It’s intercultural, not mono-cultural. We had Greeks and Turks dancing together, side by side. They absolutely loved it and it was such good fun,” said Ioannou.

His program on Islamic culture which featured a symposium of speakers, Islamic food, music and calligraphic art was so successful the government will fund the project for the next two years and has approached NEXUS to develop it as a model for other sister centres.

Ioannou underlined the importance of upholding the traditional in any culture, but believes the way of the future lies in creating contemporary artistic settings to reinvent and express our Australian identity.¬† “We are about making art relevant.”

“If you don’t develop traditional arts forms they can become inaccessible to people or simplistic. When you fuse them with other nationalities or countries you can bring out something that others can connect with and you can get an appreciation of that art form,” he said.

A Greek Cypriot, Ioannou espies himself principally as a Hellene with an eastern influence. His inquisition for other cultures stems from his background. Ioannou says that his desire to create a better understanding and appreciation between cultures derives from his own experience as a migrant.

“I came to Australia in the 1950s as a migrant. My experience as a migrant helps me in this place,” he said.
“I’ve had a sense of creativity come to me because when I first came here I was aware I was a migrant, I was aware I was different. I had to work out strategies for survival.

“As a writer I’ve had to be creative. I’ve had paintings exhibited. It’s in some ways easier to be a migrant these days. There are so many support systems out there.

“I feel an urge to be different and to make connections. It was in me to bring out the richness of humanity.”
Ioannou’s creative vision keeps evolving and there is no saying when it will end.

Check out what NEXUS multicultural arts centre has on offer at http://www.nexus.asn.au/