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A Mythology of Memory — Photo Essay

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Of Note Magazine.

By Berette Macaulay 

Though I will be a stranger in my land of origin, the importance of this journey is to bridge the gaps in my identity and my parents’ painful sabotage of identity. I want to know them in the historical and current political context of Sierra Leone; I want to know our story stripped of myth.

My understanding of the world is richly influenced by my mixed cultural background—I was born in Sierra Leone to my Sierra Leoneon father and multi-racial mother of Czech-German, Dominican-French-Creole, and Sierra Leoneon heritage. I was raised in Jamaica and the United Kingdom, and I’m now based in the United States. But my creative motivation stems from constant internal and external psychosocial negotiations of identity. It is no exaggeration to state that almost daily when I open my mouth to speak, my non-descript accent creates immediate demands for explanation—whether locally or on my travels.

In my work, I seek to express, however unfamiliar or uncomfortable, the near untenable navigations of class, race, culture, spirituality, language, and secular stratum. I am drawn to investigating memory and exposing the introspective emotional language of this through conceptual portraiture.

The portraits featured here in A Mythology of Memory* are from a genealogical study rooted in my own multicultural/immigrant experience. My interest in investigating family roots developed when my father died in 2006. I began to confront the myth of the man, the stories around how my family ended up in Jamaica, how my parents fled Sierra Leone for their lives, our hero worship of my father, and thus the myth of myself.

My parents, Berthan Macaulay Q.C. and Margarette May Macaulay, LLB at the Commonwealth Law Conference, Lagos, Nigeria, 1980.

My father, Berthan Macaulay Q.C., was appointed the first indigenous Attorney General of Sierra Leone in 1963, shortly after the country’s independence from Britain in 1961. During this time ,my mother, Margarette May, was a law student and living in London. My parents had a short albeit long distance courtship of love between Britain and Sierra Leone during 1966. They wed in London in February 1967, and within 24 hours of their wedding my mother accompanied my father to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Within a short time after their arrival, a series of political events and upheavals occurred. There was an ongoing election, during which an attempt was made to appoint a prime minister before the conclusion of the election. My father’s legal opinion was sought by the governor general as to the constitutionality of such an appointment. His opinion was that it would be unconstitutional. There followed a declaration of martial law, followed by coups and counter coups.

Shortly after the assumption of power by the army government, my father resigned as Attorney General and returned to private practice. In 1968, my father was charged, along with other high officials of the previously elected government, with treason. The case against my father was that he had given a dishonest legal opinion to the governor general. He was imprisoned for three years and nine months in the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown. He was 39 years old.

During his imprisonment, Sierra Leone had become a one party state under the All People’s Congress (APC). After his release (due to pressures from Britain and other commonwealth countries, including Jamaica), my parents endured several death threats and attempts  on my father’s life. In February 1974, shortly after I was born, my parents left Sierra Leone for the far and culturally foreign island of Jamaica. Their midlife start in the Caribbean is wholly the staff of how I experience life—in flight, uncommitted, exiled, and in search.

Aunt Marie Lomas. Beskeyden, Czech Republic, 2009. 

Aunt Adelaide Dworzak-Whest. Ebenstein, Austria, 2009. 

While slowly uncovering stories of my father through recorded interviews, the opportunity to travel on a maternal family reunion arose. The development of A Mythology of Memory began in 2009 on a West African/Czech German family reunion in Beskyden, Czech Republic and Ebenstein on the Austrian/German border. It is comprised of 26 portraits of members of my maternal family and acquired materials showing an intercultural family history dating back to the 1700s. Traveling together from our homes in four continents/regions (West Africa, Europe, United States, and the Caribbean), we attracted the interest of the Sudetan Scholar Society, and a documentary filmmaker who accompanied us. The journey was later featured on Czech Republic TV. This portrait work, which I originally titled Neue Rootz, continued in September 2013 into Nürnberg, Germany and Klimkovice, Czech Republic with my mother who was unable to attend the original reunion journey in 2009. This journey gave me a better template to develop the story of my parents’ dramatic departure from Sierra Leone.

Few in my immediate family live in our birth countries or where we were raised, including myself. This results in easy social adaptations; yet, we also experience constant cultural disparities. We are nomadic in where we reside, our chosen professions, and in how we love. We constantly negotiate cultural contradictions, navigate dissonant social circumstances, and often have to explain unlikely duo-realities, like being part African and part German. This often becomes a  strange cultural marriage to explain and defend.

 Cousin Hanna Pietzcker.  Ebenstein, Austria, 2009. 

Sister Bernadine Simpson. Beskyden, Czech Republic, 2009. 

Cousin Eva Pietzcker. Ebenstein, Austria, 2009. 

In the future, I will travel to Sierra Leone to document more of my family’s story. I understand the inevitability of retracing our personal middle passages by traveling back to the once troubled nation, Sierra Leone, that is my birth land, and to do so in its current moment of redevelopment since the Blood Diamond civil war of the 1990s.

Though I will be a stranger in my land of origin, the importance of this journey is to bridge the gaps in my identity and my parents’ painful sabotage of identity. I want to know them in the historical and current political context of Sierra Leone; I want to know our story stripped of myth. I want to uproot forgotten details of their journey that hold familiar contemporary markers for immigrants now.

I will use the camera to subjectively examine personal heritage for my own understanding of ‘self.’ My work, I hope, will function as a conceptual language for how all immigrant families seek and work to assuage dissonant histories and how they strive to create conscious agency in the evolution of culture for younger generations.

*****

*****

Berette Macaulay is an award-winning artist born in Sierra Leone of West African/French-Dominican/German-Czech descent. She was raised in Jamaica and the U.K., and is now based in the U.S.

[Photos courtesy Berette Macaulay]

 

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