“What if?” That is the question posed by Adrian Newstead in the closing chapter of his memoir The Dealer is the Devil. What if Europeans had never invaded Australia? What if the histories, the stories and the songlines of the First Australians remained intact? What if the lie that was terra nullius was never declared? What kind of country would Australia be?
A reading from a reflective chapter, entitled ‘Imagine’, began the talk by Mr Newstead, who is a 20-year veteran dealer in Aboriginal art, at Katoomba’s Carrington Hotel with Djon Mundine, an independent art curator, writer and activist, about his new book.
The Dealer is the Devil traces the history and development of Aboriginal art from the time of first European contact to the present day through the frame of Mr Newstead’s experiences working with indigenous artists and collectors.
His involvement began in 1980 after years of extensive international travel, when he opened a shop selling Australiana. During this time he met an Aboriginal man, Joe Croft, and through him other prominent indigenous activists and artists, including one of the most significant figures in his story, “Guboo” Ted Thomas.
A prominent elder of the Yuin people of the NSW south coast, Guboo (which means “your good friend”) Ted taught people from all over the world about Aboriginal culture and he inspired Mr Newstead’s lifelong engagement with Aboriginal art. He said: “Leave the street demonstrations to Aboriginal people. If you truly feel strongly about land rights put art on people’s walls and he would do more for changing people’s attitudes towards Aboriginal people than anything else a white fella could possibly do”.
Mr Newstead took the advice and began working with Aboriginal artists during the early years of the nascent movement. In the 1970s the Aboriginal art industry was worth less than $900,000. It grew exponentially throughout the 1980s and beyond and is now estimated to be worth almost $200 million.
The number of art centres in remote communities grew apace, and those involved in the industry – artists, dealers, activists and even collectors – recognised their great potential to provide both artists and communities with a sense of cultural pride and respect, the ability to share cultural teachings as well as to bring much needed money into otherwise poor communities.
In the 1980s the market was confined mostly to international collectors. Domestically, there was little interest: “Australians didn’t buy Aboriginal art”, said Mr Newstead.
That changed in the 1990s, when a number of wealthy foreign collectors began commissioning and purchasing vast collections of Aboriginal artworks. During the recession in the 1990s mainstream galleries looked to the Aboriginal art industry to strengthen their bottom lines. The interest of mainstream contemporary art galleries and dealers broadened the market for Aboriginal art and attracted a new domestic clientele interested in indigenous ethnographic artworks.
Mr Newstead also addressed the numerous scandals associated with the meteoric rise of the Aboriginal art industry, including a numbers of instances of fraud and improper attribution. These scandals, and concerns regarding exploitation of artists, led him to establish the Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association, otherwise known as Art Trade. Members subscribe to a national code of conduct in dealing with Aboriginal art.
Writing his memoirs became a catharsis for Mr Newstead, allowing him to release the anger, anguish and angst about what he had experienced over the years. Gradually, as he revised what he had written, the anger dissipated. “It was a major healing experience, writing this book”, he said. It allowed him and those he wrote about to talk out conflicts and consider old grievances with fresh eyes.
Finally, the conversation moved toward the future of the Aboriginal art movement. Will Aboriginal art and artist continue to evolve, continuing the real and tangible connections of the artists to the stories of their ancestors or will it become a relic assimilated into mainstream contemporary art?
Mr Newstead says no. “My money is on the movement. Devil or no, I’m betting it will survive, long after you and I are at one with the Dreaming – dusty specks beneath the Milky Way.”