Caught in the middle
Caught in the middle

Ron Bradfield Jnr

1968 - Caught in the middle 2022
  • acrylic on pearlshell

The making of me featured in the exhibition UNDERTOW, curated by Glenn Iseger Pilkington at Fremantle Art Centre for the Perth Festival in 2022.  The following is an excerpt from the exhibition catalogue.

Ron Bradfield is a storyteller and for many years telling stories and spinning yarns has been his primary artistic medium, weaving words and conversations with generosity, humour, charm, and wit to share stories of his life and those of his loved ones. He does this in a way that opens the hearts, minds, and mouths of those in his company – creating space for everyone to listen and to share, but most importantly he holds space for people to feel – to feel joy or sadness and to feel safe in revealing their own stories.

In recent years Ron has explored new modalities of storytelling, working as a visual artist, and creating works which chronicle his own life experiences. This is familiar territory for Ron, having worked alongside artists for many years supporting them to share their unique understandings of the world. For Ron, however, the making process is one of much consideration and reflection and can sometimes be a space of unease as he continues to navigate two worlds, often at odds with each other. Like so many First Nations people, Ron exists in two versions of Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and manoeuvres both simultaneously every day of his life.Born in Northampton in 1968, Ron was raised in Geraldton, at a challenging time for First Nations people in Australia. This was a time of social and cultural change and while Indigenous Australians were being afforded more rights in society, these changes to policy and national attitude did not result in meaningful change in Ron’s life in the 1970 and 80s.

I took part in a schooling through the 70’s and 80’s that reinforced the continued separation of our peoples in this society. It may not have always done so physically (and in my early years it did) but it continued to do so in such a way, that there was absolutely no doubt in any Aboriginal child’s mind about how much they were worth, to an Australian society  - Ron Bradfield Jnr

After leaving school in 1985 and after the crushing realisation that to live in Australia he would need to be someone else, someone palatable and not an Aboriginal man, Ron joined the Royal Australian Navy. For Ron as a Bard man, a saltwater man from the Dampier Peninsula of the west Kimberley, he felt that in donning a revered naval uniform he could be accepted in society, he could be ‘one of its Australian men’. In some ways Ron made a temporary exchange of one saltwater identity for another. As a crewmember of the HMAS Westralia, Ron belonged to a family of men and women from all walks of life, a community that endured hardships and pain together. One incredibly challenging event was an engine room fire on board in 1998, a year after Ron had left the navy. This fire resulted in the loss of four lives and the emotional and physical injury of many crew members. Watching on from a distance, Ron felt despair and helplessness for his shipmates.

HMAS Westralia is where I finally became an acceptable example of this society’s ‘man’. This happened completely at the cost of me becoming my own man. It’s where I went through our collective Westralia family’s saltwater law/lore and in doing so, I’d found myself a new tribe and a new place to be and to belong. This is where I developed life-long bonds with those who kept me safe and alive at sea. This is where we lived our saltwater lives in each other’s smell. As a result, this is where some of my deepest and rawest scars were made.

It has been 25 years since Ron wore the tally band of the HMAS Westralia, but the experiences, good and bad have left him permanently changed. For Ron, these experiences were formative, they allowed him to belong to a community, to have purpose and to connect with saltwater country, albeit through the lens of service. There was, however, a point in time when Ron had to reconnect with family, community and Country, a process that continues to this day - Ron Bradfield Jnr

UNDERTOW, Fremantle Arts Centre, 5 February - 25 April 2022

© the artist, Glenn Iseger Pilkington and Fremantle Art Centre

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Ron Bradfield Jnr 1968 - The making of me
  • mixed media
70 cm x 70 cm

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The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country and recognises their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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