“MIF has always been a festival like no other, with almost all the work being created especially for us in the months and years leading up to each festival edition. But who would have guessed two years ago what a changed world the artists making work for our 2021 festival would be working in?’

These were the words of Manchester International Festival’s artistic director and chief executive, John McGrath, as he launched (live online, of course) the 2021 Manchester International Festival programme running from July 1-18.

International artists, including Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner (of The National), Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Lemn Sissay, Marta Minujín and (hurrah!) Patti Smith will be presenting original events in (safe) indoor and many outdoor locations across Greater Manchester. This includes the first ever work on the construction site of MIF’s future home, The Factory. Alongside live events, many of them free, there will be a healthy helping of online livestreams and work created especially for the digital realm.

With almost all the work created in the past year, McGrath points out that MIF21 “provides a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times”.

He adds: “Artists have reflected on ideas such as love and human connections, the way we play, division and togetherness, equality and social change, and the relationship between the urban and the rural.”

Not coincidentally, curation of the festival’s talks and discussions programme has been handed over to local people, building on MIF’s work involving the community as artistic collaborators and participants. Meanwhile, Festival Square returns in a new location, Cathedral Gardens, with a programme of food, drink, live music, DJs and more.

As one of the first major public events in the city, there’s general agreement that MIF21 should play a key role in the safe reopening of the city’s economy and provide employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists.

Festival-Square-at-Manchester-International-Festival-2019-credit-Louis-ReynoldsManchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, a long-time supporter of the festival, says: “As we now begin to move out of the pandemic, we’re very clear that the cultural sector has an enduring and important part to play in our recovery. Manchester’s cultural sector was the first to lockdown a year ago and will be the last to reopen, so Manchester needs MIF this year more than ever. I have no doubt that MIF21 will put Manchester back in the spotlight once more, firmly centre-stage again, leading the way as ever and showing the rest of the world what Manchester does best.”

A series of works in public spaces around the city includes, on the festival’s opening night of July 1, a new outdoor dance work by French choreographer Boris Charmatz. Sea Change will fill Deansgate with a chain of professional and non-professional dancers, including more than 150 local residents, each performing and repeating a dance movement on the spot as a celebration of togetherness in a post-COVID-19 world.

Retrato. Ph. Mario Cherrutti. Crédito. Marta Minujín ArchiveMeanwhile, Argentinian art pioneer Marta Minujín will present Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, a monumental 42-metre sculpture of the iconic London landmark in Piccadilly Gardens.

“People need new ideas and new places where people meet,” says Minujín in reference to the latest instalment in her series The Fall of Universal Myths. “Global symbols like Big Ben stand up straight and never change, but the world is always changing.”

Lying almost horizontal and covered in 20,000 copies of books that have shaped British politics, this temporary landmark will be free for all to see until a ceremony at the end of the festival sees it taken apart, with onlookers invited to take home one of the books.

Also responding to the events of the past year, artist and activist Cephas Williams will create 100 portraits of Black British people, including many from Manchester, displayed throughout Manchester Arndale, highlighting the contribution of Black people living in the UK.

CephasWilliams_04_bySamShaw_Web_RGBChristine Sun Kim’s playful Captioning the City will constitute a series of installations that caption the world that surrounds us, ranging from descriptions installed on buildings to a plane with a banner caption flying over the city

For one weekend only, opera and theatre director Deborah Warner will unveil a new sound and light installation, Arcadia, created specifically for the site of MIF’s new permanent home, The Factory. Audiences will be invited to wander through a field of luminous tents housing a murmuring soundscape of poetry inspired by the natural world from Sappho to Simon Armitage and from William Blake to Sabrina Mahfouz, featuring recorded contributions from leading actors and musicians including Simon Russell Beale, RoxXxan, Jane Horrocks, Brian Cox, Lionness, and David Thewlis.

Film still from All of This Unreal Time directed by Aoife McArdle.Poetry is also the subject of a collaboration between curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and poet Lemn Sissay at HOME’s gallery and across the city. Poet Slash Artist brings together poets who work with visual art, and visual artists who work with poetry, ranging  from Tracey Emin to Inua Ellams, Imtiaz Dharker to Sky Hopinka, Lubaina Himid to Adonis. Cerys Matthews will also curate a special live event celebrating words and music.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay for the New Yorker, Notes on Grief, a tribute to the father she loved “so much, so fiercely, so tenderly”, transfers to the stage in a MIF21 world premiere from director Rae McKen. While the need to care for those alongside us and the earth that sustains us is the theme of All of This Unreal Time, a new film/poem/immersive installation starring Cillian Murphy, written by Max Porter and directed by Aoife McArdle with music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie credit Manny JeffersonMarking 25 years of Theatre-RitesThe Global Playground, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma and scored by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, mixes dance, music, theatre and puppetry for children and family audiences

At the Whitworth, Cloud Studies, a major exhibition for the tenth anniversary of Forensic Architecture, exposes how state power mobilises the air we breathe to suppress and dominate.

A new commission by Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost, The long waited, weighted, gathering, will mark the opening of the redeveloped and extended Manchester Jewish Museum, with an immersive installation that includes a new film, shot inside the museum and in the surrounding Cheetham Hill area, inspired by the museum’s history as a former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.

Leading Pakistani artist Rashid Rana will present a project conceived entirely around his concept of EART. It includes an anti-consumerist grocery store that will open as a fully functioning Manchester shop, selling generic, locally sourced and unbranded produce, “seeking to reframe the act of buying as a social, personal and global cause”.

I Love You Too, by South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, will see the publication of a book of love letters told by more than 100 Greater Manchester residents from across Manchester to a team of poets and writers, alongside a new installation in the Grand Reading Room of Manchester Central Library.

Ibrahim Mahama Photo © White Cube George Darrell.jpgPostcards From Now is a set of new film projects by leading artists from across the globe which ask how COVID-19 compels us to question how we will all live in the future. Choreographer Akram Khan and animator and film director Naaman Azhari explore how tragedy can bring us together, while visual artist Ibrahim Mahama gives an insight into creative education for young people in rural Ghana. Musician and activist Angélique Kidjo creates a potent portrait of her home country Benin and the women who inhabit it, while a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs and the artist collective (LA)HORDE shows the artistic process of creation in lockdown across borders. Director Lola Arias exposes and explores ageism in a pandemic society.

Internationally acclaimed artists and home-grown talent taking part in the music programme include two nights of performances from the incomparable poet, musician and activist Patti Smith, appearing with her band at a venue yet to be confirmed. A special one-off concert from singer-songwriter Arlo Parks finds her performing with musicians from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, and there’s also the first event in a long-term relationship with Homecoming, the Lagos-based festival of African creativity, music, fashion, sport, politics and art.

Patti Smith by Edward MapplethorpeA journey deep into Manchester’s Hip Hop underground ranges from urban pioneers to emerging grassroots talent in collaboration with Unity Radio and Manchester Hip Hop Archive, while emerging Islamic culture festival Salaam will showcase the music talent of singer Abi Sampa, kora virtuoso Sona Jobarteh and poet Muneera Williams. Manchester Camerata perform a site-specific concert called The Patience of Trees, featuring a newly commissioned concerto for solo violin, strings and percussion by Dobrinka Tabakova, inspired by the healing potential and power of the natural world.and performed by Hugo Ticciati.

Festival hub Festival Square returns in the new location of Cathedral Gardens designed by the architects Hawkins\Brown and curated nights from Jamz Supernova, Homoelectric, Mr Scruff and DJ Paulette along with many more artists and performers from across the UK.

Following the success of their free programme for audiences at home during lockdown, MIF’s online channel MIF LIVE will return to provide a window into the festival, giving audiences the opportunity to interact and engage with MIF wherever they are in the world.

Festival-Square-at-Manchester-International-Festival-2019-credit-Louis-ReynoldsOnline audiences will also be able to visit the Virtual Factory, a series of online artworks inspired by the architecture and the ambition of the building. Premiering during MIF21, artist, writer and game designer Robert Yang has created a queer video game which explores gender, sexuality, gardening and society.

The Walk is a major production from Good Chance, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, which will enact the journey of a nine-year-old refugee girl in the form of a giant living artwork. Originally due to conclude during MIF21, MIF will be marking the start of Little Amal’s journey from the Turkish-Syrian border in a special ceremony in July 2021, before welcoming her to the city for the finale event later in the year.

“Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, MIF21 is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space,” concludes McGrath. “We hope it will provide a time and place to reflect on our world now, to celebrate the differing ways we can be together, and to emphasise, despite all that has happened, the importance of our creative connections, locally and globally.”

By Kevin Bourke

Main image: Patti Smith by Edward Mapplethorpe 


Tickets will be on sale on from May 20, 2021 and can be purchased from mif.co.uk