Family members Heirloom, National Treasure: Uncommon Images Show Black Civil War Soldiers

  • A yellowish brown photograph of Sgt. Hiram White. Sgt. White is wearing a buttoned-up jacket and a kepi in the portrait. He is leaning to his right and his kepi is on the left side of his head. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same page.
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    A yellowish brown photograph of Sgt. Hiram White. Sgt. White is wearing a buttoned-up jacket and a kepi in the portrait. He is leaning to his appropriate and his kepi is on the left side of his head. His name is inscribed beneath the photograph on the exact same web page.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt
  • A yellowish brown photograph of Sgt. Isaiah White. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. A bugle insignia is on the front of his kepi. His shoulders are straight and he is directly facing the camera. His kepi is on the left side of his head. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same page.
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    A yellowish brown photograph of Sgt. Isaiah White. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. A bugle insignia is on the front of his kepi. His shoulders are straight and he is straight facing the camera. His kepi is on the left side of his head. His name is inscribed under the photograph on the exact same web page.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt
  • A black-and-white photograph of John Walls. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. His kepi is on the right side of his head. He has a shoulder strap on his left side. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same page.
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    A black-and-white photograph of John Walls. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. His kepi is on the correct side of his head. He has a shoulder strap on his left side. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the very same web page.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt
  • A black-and-white photograph of James Tall. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. He is holding a rifle and his left hand is visible in the picture. He is leaning slightly to the right side of the picture.
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    A black-and-white photograph of James Tall. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. He is holding a rifle and his left hand is visible in the image. He is leaning slightly to the right side of the picture.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt
  • A black-and-white photograph of George H. Mitchell. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. He is also wearing a shoulder strap on his left side. A rifle rests against his left shoulder. He is leaning slightly to the right side of the picture. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same page.
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    A black-and-white photograph of George H. Mitchell. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. He is also wearing a shoulder strap on his left side. A rifle rests against his left shoulder. He is leaning slightly to the right side of the picture. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same web page.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt
  • A black-and-white photograph of William H. Morris. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. His kepi has a leather chin strap resting on the brim and is on the right side of his head. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the same page.
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    A black-and-white photograph of William H. Morris. He is wearing a buttoned-up jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and a kepi. His kepi has a leather chin strap resting on the brim and is on the correct side of his head. His name is inscribed below the photograph on the exact same web page.

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    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt

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Every single of the pictures in Capt. William A. Prickitt’s album could match in a locket: headshots of 17 black soldiers who served beneath the Union Army officer in the course of the Civil War, most of their names handwritten on the mat surrounding the photos.

At just two inches tall, the square, leather-bound album itself could be simply misplaced amongst the much more than 35,000 artifacts it will join at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens this week in Washington, D.C.

Its size belies its historical significance: It really is a uncommon instance of original photographs of African-American soldiers whose identity is documented.

“That is quite rare,” says Michele Gates Moresi, a curator at the museum. “And to have a group from the very same regiment with that information. There are photos of African-American soldiers with their troops that are accessible. Some of them are panoramic. We have a couple in our collection, but you don’t always know who’s who.”

The pocket-sized photo album of Capt. William A. Prickitt includes 4 albumen prints and 14 tintypes of 17 African-American Union soldiers from the 25th Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), Company G. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt hide caption

toggle caption Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt

The photo album stayed in the Prickitt loved ones for generations — it was passed down to the youngest child in the loved ones. Prickitt’s great-grandaughter Aneita Atwood Gates says she heard the stories about the captain — that he was born in 1839 in New Jersey and was a teacher just before he joined the army and ultimately came to serve as a captain in the Union Army’s newly formed U.S. Colored Troops.

By most estimates, about 200,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army. All of the commanders of the U.S. Colored Troops, or USCT, have been white.

Gates hardly ever saw the album while increasing up, but it ultimately was passed down to her. When she started taking care of it, she kept it tucked away in a box on a laundry space shelf.

Gates says she and other loved ones members were stunned when a military magazine published a story about it and they discovered the significance of their miniature family members heirloom.

“We just assumed that there have been other of these albums out there. Up to then, it was just this great little treasure we had,” she recalls. “But then it was like, oh my gosh, I’ve got a responsibility, a key duty.”

Gates says there was great cause why her great-grandfather wanted the pictures of the black soldiers in his firm. In 1864, Prickitt and his troops were sent to defend two forts in Florida. There, he became really ill with dysentery — the camps were unsanitary — and some of the soldiers took care of him.

“The guys saved my fantastic-grandfather’s life,” Gates says.

Gates says she and other descendants are content that the soldiers saved her great-grandfather — who was in his 20s, unmarried and childless at the time. But that they do not know a lot beyond that.

“It is like the biblical stories,” the 72-year-old Gates says. “They don’t have time to go via all of the specifics, they just give you the essence.”

Aneita Atwood Gates looks through an album of her great-grandmother’s side of the household, which includes a image of her excellent-grandfather William A. Prickitt, noticed right here. Cheryl Corley/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Cheryl Corley/NPR

Gates, who lives in Petersburg, Ill., says her loved ones was torn at initial about donating the Prickitt album to the Smithsonian. They feared it would be lost in a museum so huge, and another museum closer to property wanted it, too. And the family members lastly realized it was valuable to the captain, who carried it in his pocket.

“I know all the men had to think a lot about him, and he of them, or he wouldn’t have had this tiny album of them, with all their pictures, and he would not have meticulously written their names in it, and that is what makes it so particular,” Gates says.

There are 18 pictures in the album, both paper prints and tintypes, of the 17 soldiers who served in Organization G. A single of the soldiers is pictured twice: He carries a gun in one photo, but not in the other. All are in uniform. Some put on hats with the insignia of a bugle — the designation for infantry. The names and ranks of all but one particular soldier accompany the pictures, written presumably by Prickitt.

A friend of the Gates family initial contacted the Smithsonian. Shayne Davidson is an artist and amateur genealogist who has drawn portraits of the soldiers and written a book about them.

Initial, she started researching the Gates family members tree and then dug up details about the black soldiers employing military records and census info. The youngest was about 15 the oldest was almost 50, Davidson discovered.

Some of the guys have been born totally free some have been slaves. Two of the males have been enlisted by their slaveholder. Slaveholders could be paid as much as $ 300 for enlisting men, and the slaves won their freedom, if they survived.

Not only did Davidson find out about the background of the soldiers, she in fact identified some of their descendants, like Vanessa Tall Bryant of Nashville, Tenn.

A photo of James Tall is amongst the images in the Civil War album. He is Bryant’s grandfather — not wonderful-grandfather.

Bryant, who is in her early 50s, says Tall lived a extended life, married three times and had 16 youngsters, fathering some, like her dad, at an elderly age. James Tall was 77 when her father, Sigel, was born in 1922.

When he enlisted during the Civil War, James Tall was really young, Bryant says.

“He was a slave near Murfreesboro, Tenn., and as a teenager he was sent by his slave owner to truly shoe a horse at a neighboring farm,” she says. “Even though he was there, the person that was shoeing the horse talked to him about the Union troops that had been around the area and told him he might want to take that chance to ride out.”

He took the chance and joined the Union Army.

Portraits of George W. Davis (left) and Sgt. Stephen Johnson. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt hide caption

toggle caption Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Present of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt

Bryant first heard of Prickitt when her family’s search of military and pension records listed him as one particular of her grandfather’s commanding officers. She discovered out about her grandfather’s photo in the Prickitt album a year following her father — James Tall’s youngest kid — died at age 91.

“I believe he recalled a photo getting on the fireplace on the mantel in his house, a small tintype. When he was a kid, that property burned so that image did not survive,” Bryant says. “So it was a very emotional moment thinking that, wow, you wish your dad could have been here to see it.”

Bryant says she plans to travel to Washington to see the album. Aneita Gates, Prickitt’s excellent-granddaughter, says now everyone will be in a position to see the members of the 25th regiment of the USCT.

“Offers me goose bumps,” Gates says, “to share this small story of an officer and his males.”

Gates says that is what her family members wanted: a national stage for her fantastic-grandfather’s miniature album of black Civil War soldiers.

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Charlotte Moorman show in New York: a spirit of unruly innovation

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s 'Sky Kiss', Sydney Opera House, 1976©Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s ‘Sky Kiss’, Sydney Opera Residence, 1976

If you have in no way heard of Charlotte Moorman, the cellist who covered her breasts with propellers, television sets, or nothing at all, it might be due to the fact for a time she was also famous for her personal excellent. In the 1960s she earned notoriety and sarcastic snorts, particularly from artists she championed. She played cello although held aloft by a bunch of helium balloons. She wrapped herself in clear plastic sheeting. And by the time she died in 1991, her profession had been written off as an avant-garde sideshow. If Moorman is remembered at all these days, it’s as Nam June Paik’s sidekick, the lady who wore his “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969).

Now that so numerous of her collaborators and detractors have turn out to be historical figures, New York’s Grey Art Gallery is trying to lend her posthumous respectability. She might have been amused by the thoroughness with which the curators have pawed via her archives and come up with masses of video clips, photographs, papers and relics, supplemented by copious wall texts . She emerges from this earnest and effervescent tribute as an intrepid performer/impresario, who worked difficult to launch sophisticated art and music out of its New York bubble and into a wider globe.

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Pose, efficiency and practised femininity had been portion of her act from the beginning. In 1952, the 19-year-old Moorman was crowned Miss City Gorgeous in her house town of Tiny Rock, Arkansas. A photo shows her perched on the bonnet of a car, hair sleek and dark eyes gleaming. She decamped to Manhattan five years later to study cello at Juilliard and rapidly fell in with a coterie of artistic radicals. Japanese violinist Kenji Kobayashi introduced her to Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, Simone Forti and David Tudor, and she dived into a downtown scene exactly where significant musicians had been generating all sorts of wild noises. “I uncover in this music a sensuous, emotional aesthetic and nearly mystical power which can be overwhelming,” she said.

Moorman formed a close bond with Paik, a classical pianist and sometime composer who had moved into multimedia art. He became her partner in crime and, some may well say, her Svengali. He convinced her to take off her clothing in public, an notion she embraced with brio. Collectively, they injected a salacious note into the rituals of classical music performance.

For the 1967 “Opera Sextronique” she performed the first movement in a flashing electric bikini, and the second movement without it. Police stormed the stage and arrested her for indecent exposure. The trial earned her a suspended sentence, fleeting fame as the “Topless Cellist”, and appearances on the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson shows.

Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s TV Cello, 1971©Takahiko Iimura

Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s Television Cello, 1971

She utilized the focus to promote her fellow artists, several of whom reacted with contempt. On television, she performed Cage’s “26’1.1499 for a String Player” prior to a reside studio audience, courting laughs and jeers. She took full advantage of the composer’s penchant for leaving numerous elements of the score up to the performer, and enhanced it with duck calls, a fire engine siren, sleigh bells, hammers and bursting balloons. She also study aloud from a tampon box, fried an egg and played a string stretched along a collaborator’s back. Cage hated it: she “has been murdering [the piece] all along,” he complained. Jasper Johns wrote to him that “C. Moorman need to be kept off the stage.”

Moorman with Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s ‘26’1.1499 for a String Player’, New York, 1965©P. Moore

Moorman with Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s ‘26’1.1499 for a String Player’, New York, 1965

It is hard to comprehend why her flamboyant functionality offended Cage, because he also had appeared on a game show named I’ve Got a Secret back in 1960, performing his piece Waterwalk. He moved about the stage like a deft Andy Warhol, deadpan and lithe, operating a musical apparatus that involved a blender, an iron pipe, a bathtub, a goose-call, five radios and a grand piano. The audience duly giggled.

You may well believe that, if the art world’s boys club scoffed at her self-aggrandising theatricality, at least ladies would cheer her on. Alternatively, they carped at the way she supplied her physique as a vessel for male creativity. Fellow avant-gardist Alison Knowles recognised her contributions, but with out enthusiasm: “She was always this girl from Arkansas, this superb kid in a dress holding flowers — so when an individual tells her to take off her garments, she takes off her clothing and when an individual tells her to go naked into the water, she’ll do it. It was thoughtless.”

The words of hardcore feminists have been even harsher. Andrea Dworkin named Moorman a “harlot” and referred to as her career “a process of extended rape”.

Latter-day pundits have cast Moorman as a sort of proto energy feminist taking manage of her sexuality. Her cheery manner belied the grit of a prizefighter her spectacular performances heralded an age of women’s defiant freedom. Moorman created no such claims for herself. She was far far more interested in exploding artistic conventions than in political struggle. She was an equivocal figure, poised at the precipice of feminism. Although some women have been burning bras, she made one sing.

Moorman’s most impressive achievement is the least remembered. Among 1963 and 1980 she produced the New York Avant Garde festival, an annual occasion that ultimately sprawled to the Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal and even Shea Stadium. Moorman preferred openness and freedom to strict curation, and was prepared to accept just about anything so long as it was new and enjoyable. She invited Stockhausen, John Lennon and individuals who produced issues out of tin can lids. In Jim McWilliams’ “American Picnic” (1966) performers gorged on watermelon and fried chicken till they threw up.

That logistically complicated but anarchic spirit lives on in the citywide summer season solstice festival Make Music New York, in which armies of accordion players gather outdoors and percussionists beat on buildings. Listener/participants by the thousand shuttle amongst hundreds of concurrent events each June 21. Couple of recall that its spirit of unruly innovation flows from the woman who set an whole city humming with crazy music.

‘A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s’, to December ten, greyartgallery.nyu.edu

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A new art show on the frontline of the refugee crisis

An exhibition on the Greek island of Samos hopes to inspire refugee crisis solutions

A Syrian refugee and his daughter near the Greek village of Idomeni©Yannis Behrakis

A Syrian refugee and his daughter close to the Greek village of Idomeni

Behind a white-walled cemetery on the Greek island of Samos, 1.6km from the Turkish coast, is a graveyard for young children who have drowned attempting to attain the sanctuary of Europe. Artificial flowers mark a row of nameless graves, identified only by numbers and the year 2016. Other gravestones marked “Syria” have names in Arabic, including a mound with three tiny graves on which a grieving mother has propped soft toys.

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Along the south coast, in a repurposed 1970s hotel, Tanja Boukal’s 3-minute video “The Youngsters and the Sea” captures the incongruous tranquillity of this deathly spot, with its birdsong and crickets. The film is spliced with harrowing text about three beneath-fives who washed up on Samos’s shores in January. In the artist’s insistent memorial, the hidden graveyard becomes a focus of contemplation and questioning. Her collage “Memories of Travels and Dreams” contrasts the secure tourist passage from the Turkish port of Kuşadası with the perilous and extortionate crossings at the hands of men and women-smugglers. Pictures of discarded clothing, tyres used as lifebelts and other traces of clandestine arrivals are arranged like postcards on a sea of blue, around an advertisement for a higher-speed ferry.

These new functions by Boukal, a Viennese artist born in 1976, type part ofA World Not Ours, a group show devoted to the worldwide asylum crisis, at the Art Space Pythagorion in Samos. The space was developed in 2012 by the Greek-German Schwarz Foundation from a derelict hotel on Pythagorio harbour, a picturesque waterfront of tavernas and painted boats. The €500,000 renovation struck some Samiots as a luxury amid Greece’s unending economic woes. Yet Peni Petrakou and Stelios Loulourgas’s elegant white cube draws guests, giving a fillip to a faltering neighborhood economy. From its panoramic back window, Mount Mycale in Turkey seems almost within attain.

The Art Space’s founder, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, a psychoanalyst from Athens whose husband’s wealth derives from pharmaceuticals, also hopes Pythagorio’s 7,000-year history can inspire solutions. The city’s golden age amongst the 8th and 6th centuries BC peaked below Polycrates the tyrant, host to artists, engineers and philosophers. Herodotus deemed the six-storey Temple of Hera “the greatest I have seen” (1 column nonetheless stands). The Sacred Way to it was lined with 6,000 statues. Museum treasures testify that such achievements came with the free flow of individuals, goods and tips from Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia — also sources of today’s refugees. Outdoors the Art Space is a statue of Pythagoras, the Samiot soon after whom the town was renamed, who brought geometry from Egypt, identified the maths behind musical tones and coined the term “harmony”.

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

1 of the biggest Greek islands, Samos, along with Lesvos and Chios to the north, has been on the frontline of the Mediterranean refugee crisis because 2015. Of much more than 1m irregular sea arrivals to Europe final year, 850,000 — mostly Syrians — came by way of Turkey to Greek islands, more than 800 dying en route. According to the island’s mayor, Michalis Angelopoulos, Samos saw 153,000 arrivals within a year — five instances the regional population. The controversial EU-Turkey deal in March reduce everyday arrivals from 1,700 to fewer than 20. But in the hillside above Vathy on the north side of the island, more than 1,000 folks — a third of them children — stay in an overcrowded, nominally closed camp ringed by razor-wire.

Tensions are increasing. Tourism accounts for 80 per cent of the island’s economy, but tourist numbers are down this summer by at least 40 per cent, visitors deterred by images of death and desperation. “The social tolerance of half of this society is exhausted,” the mayor told me. “We gave almost everything to a humanitarian effort municipality volunteers ready 4,000 meals a day. And central government does absolutely nothing.”

Still from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)©Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks

Nevertheless from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)

The show’s curator, Katerina Gregos, attempts to tackle these tensions with global context. “EXIT”, a superb collaborative video installation, deploys a spinning globe and ingenious infographics to animate statistics on population flows, remittances and the “push factors” of conflict, urban density and climate alter, underlining the futility of Fortress Europe.

Gregos chose artists with lengthy engagement with refugees. Boukal volunteered in Lampedusa in 2007 soon after 1st finding out of the drownings. The US artist Sallie Latch interviewed arrivals in Samos for a sound installation. Excerpts were read by actors to a rapt audience in Greek and English. Three curatorial scholars provide guided tours. For Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, “it’s up to Greece to participate in the discussion, not just be passive to a wave of incomers”.

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of tourists with that of refugees

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of vacationers with that of refugees

Numerous Greeks are themselves descendants of refugees, which often creates unexpected wells of compassion. Numerous of these forcibly expelled from Turkey in the course of the war and exchange of populations of 1919-23, recognized as the Asia Minor Catastrophe in Greece, came to this island — memories stirred by Marina Gioti’s seven-minute video “Saint Marina”. Probing the loved ones history of an icon she inherited from ancestors who fled to Samos and then Piraeus, the function is a meditation on what is lost and saved in flight.

“My family’s story is everybody’s story,” Gioti says. In the 1940s the flow went the other way, as a third of Samos’s population fled to Turkey throughout the Italian and German occupations, numerous in rowing boats.

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion©Costas Vergas

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion

Two of the strongest exhibitors are photographers who do not regard themselves as gallery artists. “The Persecuted”, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Yannis Behrakis, is a huge-scale slide projection of photographs documenting final year’s refugee crisis for Reuters. But Giorgos Moutafis’s “Europa, Europa”, tiny black-and-white photos in light boxes, draws the viewer in closer. A new arrival kisses the European shore. Another on a ship’s deck resembles a deposed Christ, haloed by a white hood, with echoes as well of the transatlantic middle passage.

Moutafis took up photography 12 years ago “in a recovery programme for drug users”, and now operates only with refugees. With black-and-white photo­graphy he seeks “to place memories in your head”. “My grandfather did this trip from Izmir to Chios in 1922, in the Catastrophe,” he says. “Greeks and Italians went to America in the 1950s. In the financial crisis, Greeks are going to Holland and the UK. No one particular can stop it just like that.”

Utilizing low cost, disposable cameras, “you only have 12 exposures, so you have to feel,” he notes. “I want the viewer to keep and think, too. I do not want to inform them they know currently.” The final pictures are of the even much more treacherous passages from Libya to Italy that have resumed considering that the March deal.

Beirut-born Ninar Esber fled civil war to Paris at age 15, and this experience of reluctant exile informs her performance piece “The Blind Lighthouse”. Its red-dressed woman on a tower is portion seductress, portion Medusa. “People are attracted to Europe like Ulysses to the sirens,” Esber says, “but she is blind, she can’t guide them.”

By contrast, Mahdi Fleifel’s 2012 documentary A Planet Not Ours, shown in the open-air cinema, gave a profound insight into the compelling motives for flight. It is set in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon exactly where Fleifel grew up. With a nod to Woody Allen, the film’s humour draws viewers by stealth into a nightmarish cycle that traps generations in camps, barred from jobs and with practically nothing to drop. By the time a single character makes a break for Europe via an unnamed Greek island, this audience, gasping with recognition, was rooting for him.

‘A World Not Ours’, to October 15, Art Space Pythagorion, Samos, Greece art-space-pythagorion.com

Photographs: Yannis Behrakis Giorgos Moutafis Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks Costas Vergas

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Section: Arts


Madonna, O2 Arena, London — ‘A spectacular show of strength’

Madonna on stage at the O2 Arena. Photo: Neil Lupin/Redferns©Neil Lupin/Redferns

Madonna on stage at the O2 Arena. Photo: Neil Lupin/Redferns

Of the two sides of Madonna revealed on her most current album Rebel Heart — a single a lachrymose balladeer pleading “Just hold me although I cry my eyes out”, the other an imperious sex-crazed queen snarling “Go difficult or go home” — which would predominate at the O2 Arena?

The phalanx of men kneeling on the stage in Game of Thrones warrior garb at the start, every single holding a cross and bowing as they awaited her entrance, was a hint of what to anticipate. And so it proved, with Madonna descending from on high in a suspended cage, singing the blaring dance track “Iconic” with unblinking iciness, wearing a red outfit with black fake fur lining that gave her the look of a ninja-educated tsarina.

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  • The Fiery Angel, Nationaltheater, Munich — ‘Savage, gripping’
  • Chvrches, Alexandra Palace, London — ‘Muscular, expansive’
  • Aghet-Ağıt, Radialsystem V, Berlin — ‘A howl of protest’
  • Tavener, Pärt and Adams, Kings Place, London — ‘Mystical and visceral’

What followed was a show of superstar invincibility. It was a U-turn of sorts, ending the efforts that Madonna has made in middle age to craft a far more sympathetic, human character for herself, as with Rebel Heart’s weepy ballads. That campaign reached an inadvertent nadir at the Brit Awards earlier this year, when a botched try to get rid of a cape triggered the dazed singer to be dragged down a staircase. Tonight’s show, at the extremely very same venue, identified her coming to her senses. Fallibility is for civilians.

The two-and-a-quarter-hour concert was incident-packed and superbly executed. Higher production values palliated the regal ticket rates the singer charges. Her choreography with 17 backing dancers was expertly detailed, from the Japanese-themed moves that added lethal grace to the crude snarl of “Bitch, I’m Madonna” to a sacrilegious pole-dancing nuns routine in “Holy Water”: salacious but impeccably timed, like the Las Vegas theatrics that the show so effectively mines.

The highlight was “Music”, set as a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical, with the backing band neatly switching in between jazz and thumping beats, and Madonna in a sparkly flapper’s minidress interrupting the song to execute a witty burlesque routine. Self-pitying tear-jerkers had been recast as acts of resilience, such as “Heartbreak City”, which ended with the singer pushing a villainous man off the top of a spiral staircase with the diva’s cry of “You abandoned me!” The model was the indomitable Edith Piaf, to whom Madonna paid tribute with a boldly warbled version of “La Vie en rose”.

Old hits had been imaginatively overhauled. “Burning Up”, from her 1983 debut, an early instance of her unabashed nature (“I have no shame!”), became a wild rocker, Madonna on her knees pretending to shred a guitar. “Material Girl” was rebooted as hard-edged electro. A straight rendition of “Like a Prayer” followed an emotional but defiant speech about Aids: “We shall overcome!” So, in a various context, she did tonight. The Rebel Heart tour turns a muddled album into a spectacular show of strength.

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