Plus: Lemn Sissay, Cillian Murphy and more for this year's Manchester International Festival

The programme for Manchester International Festival 2021 which returns from 1-18 July has been revealed. This year’s programme features original new work from across the spectrum of visual and performing arts and music by artists from over 20 countries.

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

The eclectic festival, staged every two years in Manchester, has in the past featured world premieres by artists including Marina Abramović, Damon Albarn, Laurie Anderson, Björk, Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, Elbow, David Lynch, Steve McQueen, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Yoko Ono, Maxine Peake, Skepta, The xx and Zaha Hadid Architects.

This year’s artists include Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Marta Minujín and Lemn Sissay

With almost all of the work created in the past year during the pandemic, MIF21 will attempt to provide "a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times". 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.  

Unfortunately, due to problems caused for international travel by COVID, music and literature legend Patti Smith is no longer able to join the festival, though there are plans for a special event later on once the situation improves.

Colourful Albert Square For Manchester International Festival 2019 Credit Louis Reynolds
Festival Square is usually next to Manchester Town Hall but this year will be in Cathedral Gardens Louis Reynolds

The festival opens with Sea Change, a new outdoor dance work by French choreographer Boris Charmatz, which will see Deansgate taken over by a wave of professional and non-professional dancers – including more than 150 local residents – each performing and repeating a dance movement on the spot in a joyous celebration of togetherness in a post-Covid world. 

This follows on from most previous MIFs which have included "spectaculars" as opening events such as the mass-bell ringing for peace in Cathedral Gardens in 2019 which was, frankly, poor. Let's hope Sea Change is more like the excellent catwalk of Mancs in Piccadilly Gardens, What is the city but the people? This was a proper occasion, a musical and visual extravaganza. 

Other ones to watch include an ersatz Big Ben installed in Piccadilly Gardens, an anti-consumerist grocery store that will open as a fully functioning Manchester shop, and of course Little Amal, the Syrian refugee puppet who will make the long pilgrimage to Manchester. 

2020 10 07 Little Amal 1
Little Amal should be an emotional highlight

Events will take place in public spaces and venues in Manchester and online

The festival, as usual, takes place very much in public spaces, gardens and streets, as well as formal venues. There will be many free of charge events including some, this year, at the construction site of MIF's future permanent home: The Factory. Note, events will take place at the construction site rather than in the completed building which should have been up and running for 2021. Well-documented delays and huge budget increases have delayed the project. 

There will be digital online events, via MIF’s online channel MIF LIVE. This online offering of performance, live music, interviews, commentary and talks aims to provide a window onto the festival so audiences can interact and engage with MIF wherever they are. 

Online audiences will also be able to visit the Virtual Factory - a major series of online artworks inspired by the architecture and the ambition of the building – which include a playable interpretation of The Factory in Fortnite Creative. Premiering during MIF21, artist, writer and game designer Robert Yang has created "a queer video game" that explores gender, sexuality, society - and gardening. Digital Director Gabi Jenks tells us: "Expect to see naked simulated AI people, landscape architecture, and a world where we plant bodies and ideas."

Festival Square will relocate from its usual Albert Square home, due to construction work there, to Cathedral Gardens with a packed programme of food, drink, free live music and DJ curated events from the likes of Jamz Supernova, Homoelectric, Mr Scruff and DJ Paulette. Guided walks will also take place from Cathedral Gardens building on themes explored by the festival. 

Tickets go on sale on 20 May 2021 from the MIF website.

John Mc Grath Artistic Director And Ceo Of Mif And The Factory Credit Tarnish Vision
MIF CEO and Artistic Director John McGrath

MIF Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive John McGrath and Richard Leese comment on the 2021 festival

Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive, John McGrath says: “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?”

“I am thrilled 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. 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.

“We hope MIF21 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.”

Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, says: “After the year we've all had that has been such a massive challenge for our cultural sector - which was the first to lockdown a year ago and will be the last to reopen - Manchester needs MIF this year more than ever.

"Manchester has always been a city that values and champions culture and is rightly recognised across the globe for its strengths and innovation in this.  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.

"Thanks to the determination and creativity of the MIF team and all the artists and others who are part of this year's festival, 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.”

Artist Cephas Williams Dressed In Black



Argentinian art pioneer Marta Minujín will present Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, “a joyful provocation to reimagine our national symbols and unite around democracy and equality.” Expect a 42m sculpture of Big Ben - made out of 20,000 copies of books that have "shaped British politics" - to appear lying on its side in Piccadilly Gardens.


Artist and activist Cephas Williams will create 100 portraits of Black British people, including many from Manchester, displayed throughout Manchester Arndale, making visible and highlighting the contribution of Black people living in the UK. 


This is a series of installations that celebrate the written “captions” that appear all around us - from descriptions installed on buildings, to a plane with a banner caption flying over the city. “Playful, powerful and political”, Christine Sun Kim’s Captioning the City “invites us to consider what makes up the essence of a city – and to experience our world in a whole new dimension.”

A Cgi Of Manchester International Festival Home The Factory Copyright Oma
The Factory will be completed in 2022 but its construction site will host the Arcadia installation


In an ingenious move to utilise the construction site of MIF’s future permanent home The Factory- due to be completed by the end of 2022 - Opera and Theatre director Deborah Warner brings a new sound and light installation, Arcadia. For one weekend only, 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, David Thewlis, and many others. 


Poetry is also the subject of a collaboration by 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 from Tracey Emin to Inua Ellams, Imtiaz Dharker to Sky Hopinka, Lubaina Himid to Adonis. Alongside, Cerys Matthews will curate a special live event celebrating words and music.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay for the New Yorker, Notes on Grief, is a tribute to the father she loved "so much, so fiercely, so tenderly" and a poignant meditation on the meaning, impact and nature of grief. Director Rae McKen takes the acclaimed author of Half a Yellow Sun’s words and transfers them to the stage in this timely MIF21 world premiere.

Cillian Murphy In A Striped Shirt On A Blue Background Appearing At Manchester International Festival 2021
Cillian Murphy will appear in new film All Of This Unreal Time


A new film starring Cillian Murphy, written by Max Porter and directed by Aoife McArdle with music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins. The film "candidly examines one man’s failings” and highlights our need to care for the earth and the people around us. It will be presented for its MIF21 world premiere as an immersive installation in surround sound.


Marking 25 years of Theatre-Rites (The Welcoming Party, MIF17), The Global Playground is “an uplifting new show mixing dance, music, theatre and puppetry for children and family audiences”. Choreographed by Gregory Maqoma (Tree MIF19) and scored by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, it explores connection and disconnection and how we make the most of the time we spend together. 


At the Whitworth, a major exhibition that coincides with the tenth anniversary of Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, exposes "how state power mobilises the air we breathe to suppress and dominate". The exhibition includes the first phase of a significant new investigation on environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, a region where majority-Black communities, are exposed to the most toxic air in the US.

I Love You Too By Kemang Wa Lehulere At Mif21 Credit Adam Mc Connachie
Kemang Wa Lehulere will share 100 love letters


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. 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. 


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.


South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere is a book of love letters told by over 100 Greater Manchester residents to a team of poets and writers and will be published alongside a new installation in the grand Reading Room of Manchester Central Library.


This set of new film projects by leading artists from across the globe considers how COVID-19 has made us 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; visual artist Ibrahim Mahama gives an insight to 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; a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs and the artist collective (LA)HORDE shows the artistic process of creation in lockdown across borders; and director Lola Arias exposes and explores ageism in a pandemic 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 now 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.


MIF21’s music programme includes a one-off concert from the singer-songwriter Arlo Parks performing with musicians from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and a partnership with Homecoming, the Lagos-based festival of African creativity, music, fashion, sport, politics and art - the first event in a long-term relationship with Homecoming, a cultural exchange between Nigeria and Manchester.

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

Postcards From Now Ibrahim Mahama Photo © White Cube George Darrell
Visual artist Ibrahim Mahama gives an insight to creative education for young people in rural Ghana

For the first time, Manchester residents will take over the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions series. This builds on MIF’s pioneering work with the community as artistic collaborators such as Festival in My House in which Greater Manchester residents programmed their own international micro-festivals. Featuring a range of speakers, including artists, activists, key workers, campaigners and members of the Greater Manchester community, Looking Forward to Tomorrow will explore some of the big issues of the day including the climate emergency and anti-Black racism. 

As always, our very own Jonathan Schofield will be hosting his much-loved guided Manchester tours as part of the festival.

It's been a dark year for the arts and MIF has been supporting local creatives throughout the COVID-19 crisis. This includes selecting five Greater Manchester artists for Creative Fellowships providing mentor support, a £3,000 bursary and opportunities to shadow the creation of major Festival productions and supporting Manchester’s musicians through MIF Sounds, providing funding and professional guidance. It is also a major partner in the Independent Artist Initiative - supporting independent artists and companies in Greater Manchester to develop and share their work across the summer, including during the festival.

We welcome MIF back with open arms and will be getting stuck into the whole programme of events with enthusiasm.

Buy tickets from MIF21 here from 20 May.

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