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Arts & Entertainment

Salt Lake Temple Closing for Four-Year Renovation

An iconic temple central to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith will close for four years for a major renovation to help it withstand earthquakes and be more welcoming to visitors, leaders said Friday. 

Authorities are also keeping a careful eye on construction plans after a devastating fire this week at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

The Salt Lake Temple will close Dec. 29 to update the stately granite building and surrounding square, including elements that emphasize the life of Jesus Christ, church President Russell M. Nelson said. 

“We promise that you will love the results,” he said.

​Like The Vatican, Jerusalem

The building and square at the heart of Utah’s capital city is one of the state’s top tourist destinations, though only church members in good standing can go inside the building used for marriages and other religious ceremonies. 

When the project is done in 2024, the faith widely known as the Mormon church will host an open house to give outsiders the first glimpse of the 126-year-old temple’s interior in more than a century. 

A new visitors’ center and removal of a wall around the square in favor of a fence will also visually open up the flower-lined space to visitors walking by. 


“We want to them to think of Salt Lake just as easily as they think of Jerusalem or The Vatican as a place where Christianity really has its heart,” Bishop Dean M. Davies said.

Increased risk of fire

The work that will bring scaffolding, cranes and occasional road closures to downtown Salt Lake City also carries increased fire risk. Authorities are taking extra caution in light of the damage to Norte Dame by crafting a plan that includes a 24-hour fire watch, limiting welding and grinding to certain areas, and plenty of fire extinguishers. 

Investigators are still determining the exact cause of the fire at Notre Dame, which was under renovation when the blaze started on Monday. 

The Salt Lake Temple’s earthquake-mitigation project will be a major undertaking, and involve excavating underneath the temple to install a base-isolation system that will prevent damage by largely decoupling the building from the earth. 

The area sees seismic activity, including a series of small quakes that have occurred in recent months. Plans for this project, though, stretch back more than a decade.

Much of the square will remain open during the construction, including the building where the faith’s famed Tabernacle Choir sings.

​Serving 86 languages

In a nod to the 16-million-member church’s increasingly global membership, the project will also allow the temple to serve people in over 86 languages, rather than only English. 

Leaders declined to say how much the project will cost.

Temples aren’t used for regular Sunday services, but thousands of church members visit every year. It is one of the most popular destinations for weddings. While it’s closed, local members will go to a number of other nearby Utah temples. 

More colorful palette

After it reopens, changes will include a return to a more colorful Victorian-era palette rather than the mostly white style adopted during another extensive renovation in the 1960s.

The faith’s temples have rooms where couples are “sealed” in marriage, chambers for ceremonies on theology and morality and celestial rooms used for prayer and reflection. 

They also have ornate baptismal fonts designed for use in ceremonies to baptize dead relatives, though there’s been occasional controversy over members posthumously baptizing public figures against church policy. The faith teaches proxy baptisms give the deceased the choice to join the faith in the afterlife. 

New temples are typically open to the public for a brief time before being dedicated, after which they’re reserved for members only. 

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said the renovation will likely bring more congestion downtown, but he’s hoping curious tourists will keep visiting during construction.

“People think of The Church of Jesus Latter-day Saints and most people think of this temple,” said Herbert, who is a member of the faith. The renovation “shows the vitality of Salt Lake City. We’re not closing things down. We’re expanding and growing.”

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Arts & Entertainment

Ghanian Rapper Turned Director Taps Traditional Themes in First Film

A new film called “The Burial of Kojo” is a tale of family tensions with an overlay of magical realism. Set in Ghana, it is the first feature from Blitz Bazawule, a Ghana-born rapper and director. As Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, the film got its start as a crowd-funded project and is being widely distributed on Netflix.

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Arts & Entertainment

Ghanaian Rapper-Turned-Director Taps Traditional Themes in 1st Film

A new film called “The Burial of Kojo” is a tale of family tensions with an overlay of magical realism. Set in Ghana, it is first feature from Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule, an Ghana-born musician and director who wanted to avoid the cliches of many films set in Africa, themes of war and famine. 

Bazawule maintained creative control of the project by using the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, and he hired a Ghanaian cast and local crew. The Burial of Kojo is now reaching a global audience on Netflix.

Bazawule lives in Brooklyn but says the story is reminiscent of the tales that he heard as a child in Ghana. It concerns a girl, Esi, her father, Kojo, and his brother, Kwabena.

“One of the brothers goes missing on a mining expedition,” Bazawule explains, “and his daughter has to go on the magical journey to rescue him.” The quest lands Esi in a dreamlike world.

Rapper and filmmaker

Bazawule, known as Blitz from his days as a rapper, wanted to move from musical to visual storytelling, and this film includes both. He wrote its script and composed the film’s soundtrack. With several short films already under his belt, this was his feature debut.

The project was initially self-funded, and he completed the film by raising $78,000 through the website Kickstarter. That “gave us the autonomy that we needed,” Bazawule said. “We didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulder, we didn’t have anyone telling us what to do, what not to do. It was always us deciding with ourselves, does this make sense for this narrative?”

Showing on Netflix

The film is being shown on the streaming service Netflix as part of a distribution deal with ARRAY, a Hollywood company founded by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, that highlights the work of filmmakers of color and women directors.

“Netflix is in 190 countries, so that’s a lot of places where you can find beautiful work,” said ARRAY’s Tilane Jones.

It’s good for movie lovers, Bazawule added, and international filmmakers are also finding an audience. 

“You build credibility for the stories that you’re telling,” he said, with fresh faces and new voices bringing art from countries like Ghana to the screen.

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Arts & Entertainment

‘Real Housewives’ Husband Giudice Loses Immigration Appeal

“Real Housewives of New Jersey” husband Joe Giudice has lost his appeal to avoid deportation to Italy.

His attorneys said Thursday they are “extremely disappointed” by the Board of Immigration’s decision and have appealed to the federal circuit court in Philadelphia.

Giudice and his wife, Teresa, pleaded guilty in 2014 to financial fraud. Giudice is an Italian citizen who was brought to the U.S. as a baby and says he wasn’t aware he wasn’t an American citizen. 


Teresa Giudice served nearly a year in prison and was freed in December 2015. Joe Giudice was released from prison last month and was sent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in southeast Pennsylvania.


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Arts & Entertainment

Debate Over Future Notre-Dame Spire Fuels French Divisions

President Emmanuel Macron might have hoped he was striking a note for modernity and openness in announcing an international competition to design a new spire for Notre-Dame cathedral, but he may have opened a can of worms instead.

There was already debate about whether his goal of rebuilding the church by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games, was overly ambitious, but now he’s unsettled those who would prefer to return the national symbol to just how it was.

“Since the spire wasn’t part of the original cathedral,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement late on Wednesday, “the President of the Republic hopes there will be some reflection and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged.”

Computer-generated pictures online included ideas for a soaring glass needle to replace the 91-metre (300 foot) spire, which was added to the cathedral in the mid-1800s, replacing a Medieval one that was removed in 1786.

But that appears to be too much for many French, especially those with a traditional or Catholic bent.

In an online survey conducted by conservative newspaper Le Figaro, more than 70 percent of the 35,000 people who responded said they opposed any contemporary style design.

Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a 33-year-old philosopher who will head the right-of-center Les Republicains party list in next month’s European Parliament elections, said Macron’s government lacked humility in suggesting a modernist rethink.

“We are the inheritors of patrimony, it doesn’t belong to us, and it’s important therefore that we hand it on in the way that we received it,” he told Reuters.

“There are rules in France about protecting national heritage. The President of the Republic is not above the law.

It’s not up to him to decide to build a modern spire.”

Plus ca change…

While Bellamy is a conservative Catholic and might be expected to campaign for returning the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece to exactly how it was before the fire, his views are shared by some architectural historians.

Patrick Demouy, an emeritus professor of medieval history who specializes in the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, said it would be difficult to imagine something starkly different to the 19th century spire, even if its architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was himself quite inventive with his design.

“Personally, I’m in favor of restoring it to how it was because that’s the spire that has imposed itself on the collective memory,” he told Reuters. “It would be hard to perceive [a contemporary spire] because we wouldn’t really recognize it any longer as being Notre-Dame.”

Macron’s culture minister, Franck Riester, said it was important the nation debated the issue and generated ideas.

There is likely to be months if not years of discussion before a design — contemporary or otherwise — is fixed upon.

“The masterpiece that Viollet-le-Duc left us is exceptional, but we must not dogmatically insist that we recreate an identical cathedral,” he told BFM TV. “We must let the debate take place, see what ideas are presented, and then decide.”

Paris has a track-record of being experimental with its architecture, whether via buildings such as the Pompidou Center, or the glass pyramid at the heart of the Louvre, which blends modernism with classical lines.

Other constructions, such as the 210-metre Montparnasse tower or the vast empty square of the Arche de la Defense, have come in for more criticism, even if they have fans, too.

For Jean-Michel Leniaud, an art historian at the National Institute of Art History, Notre-Dame is special because it is both a work of art and among the nation’s greatest monuments, a source of unity for citizens in times of strife.

“The restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris shouldn’t be the opportunity for creative architects to show off their inventive spark,” he told Reuters. “We should go back to the original, the spire of Viollet-le-Duc,” he said.

“The best way, the most consensual way to overcome this terrible disaster is to return it to the original state.”

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Arts & Entertainment

Yemeni Artist’s Murals Depict Costs of War

As the war in Yemen continues to inflict suffering on its millions of civilians, a Yemeni graffiti artist is taking her art to the streets of Sanaa to draw images of war and hunger in the conflict-torn country.  


Haifa Subay, 28, is weaponizing her art to disseminate messages of peace at home and to try to bring the world’s attention to the toll that war has taken on Yemenis, particularly women and children. 


“I wanted to send a message of peace, a plea to stop the fighting and alleviate the suffering caused by the ongoing war,” Subay told VOA from her home in Sanaa. 


Subay said her art campaign focuses on various humanitarian and social consequences of the conflict, including famine, land mines, displacement, child soldiers, child marriage and domestic violence against women. She chose Sanaa’s most populated areas to make sure her striking art is seen by as many people as possible.  

​’Just a Leg’


One of her popular works, called “Just a Leg,” shows a one-legged boy who is holding his amputated leg, the result of a land mine accident. Another artwork, “Child of Bones,” portrays a mother holding her malnourished son. 


“All of my murals are of real people and real situations,” Subay said,  and each one “has a story behind it representing an aspect of the conflict. My favorite mural is of the child victim of land mines holding a leg he lost in an explosion.”

The war in Yemen started in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in support of the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi after Iran-aligned Houthi rebels staged a takeover of Sanaa and large swaths of Yemeni territory. Since then, the conflict has morphed into a proxy war between neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.  


According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a database tracking violence in the country, the conflict has, since early 2016, caused 67,600 deaths; 7,000 of those victims were civilians.   


The United Nations has warned that Yemen is facing the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with two-thirds of all districts in the country in a “pre-famine” state and an estimated 80 percent of the population in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.  

​Yemeni women  


The agency said women and girls are paying the heaviest price in the conflict, with many being prevented from going to school or even having access to public spaces. 


According to a report released in February by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the conflict has forced about 4.3 million Yemenis to flee from their homes, with almost half of the displaced being women and girls under age 18.  


“With limited shelter options, displaced women and girls tend to suffer most from lack of privacy, threats to safety and limited access to basic services, making them ever more vulnerable to violence and abuse,” UNFPA reported. 


As a female artist, Subay said she wanted to use her work as a tool to express women’s suffering due to the war and their abilities to make positive change when they are given an opportunity.  


“When I started painting on the walls of my city, some people were surprised by seeing a woman drawing graffiti on the street. But my illustrations of war touch the hearts of every Yemeni,” Subay told VOA. 


“With time, the gazes of surprise have turned into support and encouragement,” she said, adding that she has been able to change the attitude of many toward women’s abilities.  


Similarly, she hopes her murals can also help promote peace and respect for civilian lives as warring sides seek a compromise to end over four years of war.  


​Peace talks 


The Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Houthis reached a U.N.-backed cease-fire agreement in December that demanded all parties pull back from the main ports and parts of the strategic city of Hodeida. The agreement, however, fell short of its goals as the parties started accusing each other of using the cease-fire to prepare for war.  


The U.N. on Monday said efforts were under way to get the warring parties to the negotiating table again.  


“I hoped for a peace that alleviates the suffering of Yemenis, but my hope is fading as the conflict is deepening my people’s agony. … My country’s grave suffering is a wound in my heart,” Subay said. 

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Arts & Entertainment

Beyonce Drops Surprise New Album

Beyonce has surprised her fans by releasing a soundtrack to her Netflix documentary “Homecoming.” 


The 37-year-old superstar debuted “Homecoming: The Live Album” Wednesday, the same day a Netflix documentary exploring her historic performances at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was released.

She was the first black woman to headline the event in which she paid tribute to America’s historically black colleges.

The album features 40 tracks including “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love.” There’s also a special version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by her oldest daughter, Blue Ivy. 


It is available through most major streaming services.

Beyonce first surprised fans when she unexpectedly dropped her fifth studio album, “Beyonce,” in 2013.

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Arts & Entertainment

France Launches Global Contest to Replace Notre-Dame Spire

France on Wednesday announced it would invite architects from around the world to submit designs for replacing the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral after a devastating blaze, as the government braced for a mammoth restoration challenge.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the contest would decide whether the monument should have a new spire at all and if so, whether it should be identical to the fallen 19th-century model or be a wholly new design.

The world looked on in horror Monday as flames engulfed the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece seen as encapsulating the soul of Paris and the spire came crashing down.

Explaining that having no new spire at all was an option, Philippe noted that Notre-Dame had been without a steeple for part of its history.

“The international contest will settle the question of whether we should build a new spire, whether we should rebuild the spire that was designed and built by [Eugene] Viollet-Le-Duc, in identical fashion, or whether we should… endow Notre-Dame cathedral with a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.”

Philippe described the task of rebuilding it as “a huge challenge and historic responsibility,” a day after President Emmanuel Macron said the entire restoration should be completed in just five years.

The bells of French cathedrals were to ring out at 1650 GMT on Wednesday to mark the exact moment when the fire started on Monday.

Macron had vowed to rebuild the iconic monument, the real star of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” by 2024 when France hosts the summer Olympics.

“We can do it,” he said Tuesday, calling France “a nation of builders.”

On Wednesday afternoon, he was set to chair a meeting of senior government, church, conservation and Paris city officials to launch the reconstruction process.

Rebate debate

No sooner had firefighters extinguished the flames than pledges of donations towards restoring France’s best-loved monument, which attracted 12 million visitors in 2018, began to pour in.

Within 24 hours, the pledges had reached more than 800 million euros ($900 million), with French business magnates and corporations jostling to outshine each other with displays of generosity.

But the slew of announcements raised eyebrows in France, with some leftist politicians arguing that the ultra-rich could best help protect the country’s cultural heritage by fully paying their taxes — or helping the “human cathedral” of people in need.

The huge tax breaks available on the donations also caused some unease, prompting Francois-Henri Pinault, the billionaire CEO of the Kering luxury goods empire, to announce he would forfeit his rebate.

“The donation for Notre-Dame of Paris will not be the object of any tax deduction. Indeed, the Pinault family considers that it is out of the question to make French taxpayers shoulder the burden,” Pinault said in a statement.

Pinault had led the pledges of donations starting Monday night with a promise of 100 million euros.

Billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH luxury conglomerate, Total oil company and cosmetics giant L’Oreal also each pledged 100 million euros or more, while US tech giant Apple said it would give an unspecified amount.

French corporations are eligible for a 60-percent tax rebate on cultural donations.

The government said Wednesday that figure would remain unchanged, but increased the rebate to 75 percent on individual donations for Notre-Dame of up to 1,000 euros.

Bigger private donations will continue to qualify for the standard 66 percent rebate.

Rebuilding for 2024 Olympics

On Tuesday evening, Macron set out an ambitious timeline for restoring the landmark that took nearly two centuries to build and which has played a role in many of the defining moments of French history.

“We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years,” Macron said in an address to the nation, in which he hailed how the fire had shown the capacity of France to mobilize and unite.

In a sign of the monument’s resilience, the copper rooster that topped its spire was found Tuesday in the rubble of the roof, “battered but apparently restorable” according to a spokesperson for the culture ministry.

The walls, bell towers and the most famous circular stained-glass windows also remain intact.

But the floor of the nave was left strewn with blackened roof beams and chunks of the collapsed upper vaulting.

Experts have warned that full restoration could take longer than five years, with one of the biggest tasks involving replacing the precious oak “forest” that propped up the roof.

“I’d say decades,” Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, told AFP.

‘Long, complex’ investigation

Investigators trying to determine the cause of the blaze are questioning workers who were renovating the steeple, an operation suspected of accidentally triggering the blaze.

The police have already spoken to around 30 people from five different construction companies.

Public prosecutor Remy Heitz has said the investigation threatened to be “long and complex”.

Meanwhile, work to secure the cathedral continues.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said Tuesday that although “some weaknesses” had been identified, overall the building was “holding up OK”.

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