UCL European Institute


Hearing Ghosts: The Life & Times of Josephine Morcashani

11 June 2024

Our new video short introduces the international music hall star of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, relating her to the conditions for Black British performance artists today.


Our latest collaboration with filmmaker Graham Riach explores the life of Josephine Morcashani (1870-1929), a Black British music hall star known across Europe as a glamorous cross-dressing diva. We hear tales of brandishing pistols, a flight from wartime Berlin, and discover in the archives the only known recording of Morcashani’s voice.
‘Hearing Ghosts: The Life & Times of Josephine Morcashani’ traces the life of a major star of the music hall stage in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Through that story it reflects on the conditions of performance for Black British artists, both then and now. The video features researcher Jeff Bowersox and performer Helen McDonald, and investigates Morcashani’s acts of self-creation, the lengths she was willing to go to in order to succeed, and the politics of preserving the archives of black performers.
The film was created by filmmaker Graham Riach in collaboration with Jeff Bowersox and the UCL European Institute's Claudia Sternberg. Many thanks to Rainer Lotz the use of his recording of Josephine Morcashani.

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By and with

  • Dr Graham Riach is an academic and documentary filmmaker based in Oxford and Brussels. As an academic, he specialises in world literature, with a particular interest in questions of form and aesthetics. As a filmmaker, he specialises in working with academics to tell the story of their research in words, images, and sound.
  • Dr Jeff Bowersox is an Associate Professor of German History at UCL, where he teaches and researches German colonial history, Black European studies, and the history of toys. He is currently working on a book following Black stage entertainers across central Europe before the jazz age. Jeff is also the managing editor of blackcentraleurope.com, a web resource offering 1,000 years of Black histories in the German-speaking lands. Also check out his recent academic article on racial and ethnic difference in Playmobil toys.
  • Helen McDonald is an activist singer and storyteller, poet and performer. 

[Black Europe] & Festival of Afro-European Arts, Performance & Scholarship

This film was premiered as part of our Festival of Afro-European Arts, Performance & Scholarship in June 2024. This celebrated Black cultural production and critical inquiry and seeks to explore the structures that make Blackness seem natural, self-evident, and variously foreign across Europe. Our overarching [Black Europe] work stream includes this festival, a speaker series in 2023-24 and a podcast, all to challenge the notion of Europe as a white space, and to highlight the gaps in studies of race in Europe and in colonial contexts.

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UCL Music Futures

Music Futures
This film was supported by UCL Music Futures, the initiative dedicated to thinking, writing and performing music, jointly hosted by the UCL European Institute and the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, with support from UCL Grand Challenges. Find out more about the initiative on this link, and Jeff Bowersox's project supporting this film here.

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