Dealer Joins Dots Between Climate and Aboriginal Art

Adrian Newstead in the entrance to his Bondi Beach gallery. (Photo: Mat Ward)Adrian Newstead in the entrance to his Bondi Beach gallery. (Photo: Mat Ward)

Adrian Newstead was one of the first people to study climate change in Australia.

“I went to a place called the Barren Grounds, which were down the New South Wales south coast down near Kangaroo Valley,” the 66-year-old tells Green Left Weekly.

“It’s like a hanging swamp, a huge peat swamp. Now you know, wherever peat accumulates, there’s not been much alluvial activity, it’s just sedimentation and vegetation compounding over thousands of years – in the case of the Barren Grounds, 10,000 years or more. So there’s a very stable record of what’s happened. We took core samples right down into the swamp and we carbon-dated each core sample and then I would look at them under a microscope.

“There are certain species of plants that are very good indicators of climate, they move up and down the mountain – they’re very temperature sensitive. So in that way – in that incredibly scientific way – we looked at how the climate had changed on the east coast of Australia. I could have ended up a bloody scientist looking down a microscope.”

Instead, Newstead ended up becoming one of Australia’s leading dealers in Aboriginal art – a panoramic life story he recounts in his provocatively-titled memoir The Dealer Is The Devil, which was released to wide critical acclaim this year. His study of climate change gets only a one-line mention in the book, which was cut down from a million words to a still-thumping 500 pages. Yet the fact his climate change tale is so compelling shows how tough an editing job the book must have been.

A journalist from The Saturday Paper wrote that Newstead’s conversation is so captivating, it is impossible to interrupt to ask him a question. In fact, you can butt in – but it is always with regret. Newstead does not waste a word, whether he is writing about the roots of the Aboriginal art industry or talking – here in the upstairs kitchen of his sprawling Bondi Beach home-cum-gallery – about identifying the microscopic morphology of plants through their fossilised pollen grains to gauge climate change.

Yet although his study of climate change gets only the briefest mention in the book, it is crucial to his life story, since it was Newstead’s degree in agricultural science that led to his fascination for Aboriginal art.

“When I became exposed to Aboriginal art it really enthralled me especially because it wasn’t these highly coloured acrylic dot paintings that I saw,” he says.

“What I was looking at were bark paintings and weavings and things that were made from the bushes and the trees and the earth. It just so happened that at that time I was introduced to some Aboriginal people and I started to spend time in the bush with them.

“When you do agricultural science at Sydney University, there is no better grounding in the world in the natural and life sciences, there’s nine different subjects you study – entomology, biology, geology, soil science, you study everything – and you can be of the point of view, ‘OK, there’s everything, I can control it all with chemicals and with machines and I’m the king of the universe and I can bend nature to my own will.’ This is the Christian ethic, right?

“Or, at the very same time you’re doing that, you’re learning from some Aboriginal people about how everything’s related and suddenly you find, ‘Hmmm, well, there’s this other philosophy, it’s called deep ecology.’ You see the earth as a living organism and you see the living organism when you spend time in the deep wilderness. You know, it’s not just the ants walking along you know, it’s all one thing and it exists for time immemorial. There’s no change in this. It is as it is and it’s been that way forever.”

At least that’s the way it was, until invasion.

“Yes,” laments Newstead. “For instance, you’re with a man and he’s walking through the forest and he’s looking for bush tucker and he says, ‘Well, I can’t see any of those little purple flowers, down there under those flowers you get tubers and that’s tubers we used to eat.’ But now of course the cattle are all wandering through the state forests, even the deep wilderness, eating all the flowers and changing everything.”

The change to the land now known as Australia has been almost as rapid as the change to Aboriginal art, which whipped up out of the desert like a willy-willy and looks like collapsing back to earth just as fast. Newstead was at the eye of the storm, helping turn Aboriginal art into a multimillion-dollar boom industry before he even had time to take in the big picture.

“My whole experience was a blessing that I certainly didn’t recognise as such at the time,” he says. “I fell into Aboriginal art and I didn’t realise that I was privileged enough to know and meet and communicate with the last of the last of the last people that grew up in full knowledge of what I’ve just been talking about. And once they’re gone, a vast storehouse of living knowledge is lost. No matter what their successors continue to practise, it will never be as potent and as meaningful as it was.

“The whole question of whether there’s a future for Aboriginal art is really the main question. Every art movement has a finite period – it doesn’t matter what art movement in the history of world art – and what we’ve seen is an explosion of paintings during the last 30-odd years, started by a small group of people, increased exponentially. A kind of equivalent of tulip mania happened with the Aboriginal art market, not dissimilar to the interest in Japanese lacquer-ware and art in Paris in the 1880s, intense interest – everybody wanted it – and then 30 years later it was filling the bric-a-brac shops.”

In his book, Newstead charts the often damaging effect of the media on Aboriginal art and the artists who produce it. “Artists, traders, curators, academics and advocates all felt the industry was being ‘murdered by Murdoch’,” he writes.

Newstead notes that the way Aboriginal artists have been attacked for producing collaborative works can be seen as a kind of “covert racism”, especially when a white artist such as Damien Hirst is celebrated for using assistants and admitting he can’t even paint.

“It only came about through a certain amount of commercial skulduggery and ignorance,” says Newstead. “Aboriginal art, whether it was practised as body painting or ground construction – whatever it was before the rectangle entered into their consciousness in the form of painting in acrylic paints in colour – it was quite formally collaborative and intended as a way of teaching and passing down knowledge and that’s what painting has become.

“Most Aboriginal people paint with kids beside them and they tell the story and they sing the song. I think it’s only natural that somebody should assist their mother or their father or their aunty or their sister in doing a painting. How do they pass on important cultural information, unless they can sit side by side and work together?”

Newstead’s understanding of the art comes from 30 years of friendships with the artists – the kind of relationships that don’t come so easily between dealers and the people in whose work they deal. In the book, he writes: “The truth is that the majority of non-specialist dealers and gallery owners rarely had deep friendships with Aboriginal artists in the field.”

Newstead, however, is not so much a fly-in-fly-out dealer as a drive-in, swag-out and forge lasting friendships operator. A key insight into his character comes when he writes about his parents – artistic art lovers who were always throwing parties to a packed home. Their gregariousness seems to have rubbed off on Newstead, I suggest.

“Yes,” he smiles. “Maybe.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of Newstead’s character is his ability to step outside the frame, canvassing opinion from people of all political stripes and colours. He was once thrown through a plate glass window on Sydney’s Pitt Street while protesting against the Vietnam War. He used to spend two months a year in an environmental forest camp with his close friend, the Aboriginal activist and conservationist Guboo Ted Thomas. Yet Newstead also worked for arch-capitalist auctioneer Rod Menzies, using a series of counter-intuitive moves to help him steal market share of the Aboriginal art industry from global powerhouse Sotheby’s – and making Menzies millions of dollars in the process.

“Well,” laughs Newstead, “Rod was always very funny with me. He was always very tongue-in-cheek.”

Then he looks around his art-adorned kitchen walls and says: “I wouldn’t say I’m an activist, but my politics are left-wing and my major concerns are green.

“I think there’s some amazing things happening in Aboriginal Australia which I’m not really a part of – you know, their push for sovereignty and all this sort of stuff. There’s a strong Aboriginal push to get more elected representatives, especially in NSW parliament, in the New Zealand style – and they could very well be successful. I think if they started their own political party, I don’t doubt that they could get two or three representatives into the Upper House in NSW, easily – they’d shoo it in. But they’re inclined to do it on their own, I think. They’re not into the sort-of left-wing, right-wing thing. It’s a different thing. They’re not into party politics so much. That’s been my experience.

“I was recently witness to the political commitment and power of the local Indigenous activists up in northern NSW where they mobilised and banded together to halt the coal seam gas project. They can put out a text or a phone call and deliver 1000 people to the site within two hours.”

Just metres from where we talk, a “Lock The Gate” anti-coal seam gas protest triangle is attached to Newstead’s balcony, facing outwards to the paperbark-lined street below. In his book, he draws an indelible line linking the ecological message of traditional Aboriginal art and the current threat to the planet.

“You know, Aboriginal art is often simply portrayed as landscape, which is kind of missing the point, because I think it’s a potent comment on people’s connection with the land,” says Newstead. “If it was promoted in a different way to the world, then it could be promoted as a particular culture’s response to the most prescient threat to humankind.”

If that happened, maybe, just maybe, the endangered pair – humankind and Aboriginal art – could help save each other.