Manchester International Festival has secured a number of leading artists for its July opening. The 2021 edition of the biennale has lined up a cohort whose work include exhibitions to mark the 10th anniversary of Forensic Architecture; a new collaboration between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Lemn Sissay exploring the artist as poet; Cephas Williams’ Portrait of Black Britain and Deborah Warner’s sound and light installation Arcadia.

A visualisation of the new The Factory venue

They will join a strong heritage of artists and musicians who have used the festival to premier some of their most well known work. These include Marina Abramović, Damon Albarn, Björk, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, Elbow, Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott, David Lynch, Steve McQueen, Yoko Ono, Thomas Ostermeier, Maxine Peake, Punchdrunk, Skepta, The xx and Zaha Hadid Architects.

The festival will also be notable for the scheduled arrival of Little Amal, a walking puppet whose journey from Syria has highlighted the plight of child refugees around the world. In December we reported on how her journey had drawn the backing of Hollywood.

Poetry in art

Central to this year’s festival will be Arcadia by theatre and opera director Deborah Warner. The installation will transform the open spaces of the site known as The Factory into luminous tents playing original sound compositions and bringing together nature-themed poetry from John Clare, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Alice Oswald. The work is inspired by William Wyld’s industrial era painting of the city from the country vantage point of Kersal Moor and complements a number of poetic echoes and discourses across the city.

Manchester from Kersal Moor by William Wyld

Poet Slash Artist, co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist & Lemn Sissay and on display at HOME is set to include work by Tracey Emin, Inua Ellams, Heather Phillipson, Adonis, Lubaina Himid and Xu Bing. Each of the 25 poet/artists has been commissioned to create a new work that brings together their visual art and poetry practice, to be installed in public spaces across Manchester. Alongside the exhibition, musician Cerys Matthews will be curating a live programme of poetry and music at Homeground, HOME’s summer-long open-air stage, and a film season at the same venue will feature work by artists who overlap between the worlds of poetry and visual art. 

As well as this, the festival examines more personal contemporary experiences through Portrait of Black Britain by activist artist Cephas Williams (pictured top). The project to create the largest ever collection of photographic portraits of black British people follows on from the success of Williams’ 56 Black Men project which challenged social and media perceptions of black males in the UK and the US. This new work seeks to amplify the contributions made by black people living in the UK with the first phase of portraits installed throughout the Manchester Arndale shopping centre. 

“I am delighted to be revealing the projects that we will be presenting from 1-18 July this year – a truly international programme of work made in the heat of the past year and a vibrant response to our times,” said John McGrath, Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive. “Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, it is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space.” Aptly, with interaction and experience still heavily dependent on pandemic guidance, the festival has undertaken to provide an online offering which will provide a window into the exhibits for viewers worldwide, including livestreams and bespoke work created for the digital realm.

As well as those mentioned above, this edition will also include:

Cloud Studies – Forensic Architecture 

In their tenth anniversary year, the research group Forensic Architecture present a major exhibition at the Whitworth. Forensic Architecture set out to analyse investigations from Palestine, via Beirut to London, Indonesia and the US Mexico border, in order to explore how state and corporate power mobilises the air we breathe. A highlight of the exhibition will be the first phase of a major new investigation on environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, a region where majority-Black communities, descendants of people historically enslaved on these same grounds, breathe the most toxic air in the US.

(Date: 2 July – 17 October 2021, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Free).

Cloud Studies – Forensic Architecture

I Love You Too – Kemang Wa Lehulere 

I Love You Too, by South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, is a large-scale participatory project commissioned by MIF and Manchester Libraries cultural programme. In early 2021, people from across Manchester took part in online and in person interviews, contributing their stories to a compilation of love letters. A selection of 11 Manchester-based writers sat with participants to compose letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individual participants’ experiences. This compilation will be launched during MIF21 with the publication of a book which will become a permanent part of Manchester Libraries’ collection. The book will be accompanied by an installation of new work by Wa Lehulere in the grand Reading Room of Manchester Central Library.

(Installation dates: 2-10 July 2021, Manchester Central Library, Free)

The long waited, weighted gathering – Laure Prouvost 

Manchester Jewish Museum and MIF are co-commissioning a new work by Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost. The installation will premiere at MIF21 and will reopen the newly renovated and extended Manchester Jewish Museum following a two-year long £6 million Capital Development project.

The immersive installation will include 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. Laure will be responding to the museum’s extensive oral history collection to resurrect the voices, stories and lives of the Sephardi women who once gathered in the synagogue’s Ladies Gallery.

(Date: 2 July to 3 October 2021, Manchester Jewish Museum, Price: £6 museum admission – £5 concession)

Eart – Rashid Rana 

Rashid Rana, artist and academic, will present a project conceived entirely around the concept of EART, a term coined by the artist to describe moments of self-expression and creative practise inclusive of, but not limited to the arts. A major element of this project will be an anti-consumerist pop-up grocery store that will open as a fully functioning Manchester shop. The shop will sell generic, locally sourced and unbranded produce, seeking to eliminate the power of branding and reframe the act of buying, turning capitalism and consumerism upside down.

 An exhibition of new work by Rashid Rana considering how this concept of EART could be applied everywhere, from social media to real estate development, will also be presented. 

(Date: 1-18 July 2021, Free)

Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books – Marta Minujín

MIF presents a participatory artwork by Argentinian art pioneer Marta Minujín. Audiences are invited to visit a 42m sculpture of Big Ben (the world-famous nickname for the Elizabeth Tower) lying down in Piccadilly Gardens. Inside, a new film by Minujín will show the landmark quitting Westminster to come to its new home. Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books will be covered with 20,000 books which people are invited to take away at the end of the festival. The artwork continues Minujín’s series The Fall of Universal Myths.

Marta Minujín

(Date: 1-18 July 2021, Piccadilly Gardens, Free) 

Captioning the City – Christine Sun Kim

US-born, Berlin based artist Christine Sun Kim will install captions, usually used to convey text on our screens, throughout the streets and buildings of Manchester. Some are descriptive, depicting the world that surrounds us while others are more poetic, inviting audiences to ask what they perceive and understand about their surroundings. Captioning the City invites audiences to consider what makes up the essence of a city, and to experience the world in a new dimension.

(Date: 1-18 July 2021, City-wide locations, Free)

Love Campus ABCD – Ibrahim Mahama

The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art and Red Clay Studios, established by Ghanaian visual artist Ibrahim Mahama in his hometown of Tamale, run a series of experimental programmes designed to educate, stimulate and encourage young people from communities with high levels of poverty and low levels of education. This film tells their story. For this project, Mahama is creating a film about the activation of Parliament of Ghosts (MIF19) and the additional education spaces he is building in Tamale.

(Date: 1-18 July 2021)

A full listing and all the details for the festival can be found at 

Pictured top: Cephas Williams

Alex Matchett

Alex Matchett is Editor of Culturall, specialising in culture, business and finance.