by Norman Warwick

Portrait Of Black Britain was an exhibition of Black achievement in the UK and it started a National tour at the Manchester International Festival 2021 (MIF) in the first two weeks of July.

´I aim for this to be the largest portrait series of Black British people ever taken before,´ said campaigner and photographer Cephas Williams (left), announcing his new, landmark project, Portrait of Black Britain. Commissioned by Manchester International Festival, the first set of images feature the faces of Manchester residents who responded to Williams’ invitation to take part. ´This interest in making Black people visible is not just to see their face, but for us also to hear their voice,´ he explained. ´A lot of our contributions, a lot of achievements, and actually our very existence can sometimes go unnoticed´.

Driving all Williams’ ambitious, large-scale projects is invariable a sense of real urgency. In 2018, Williams unveiled 56 Black Men: billboard-sized portraits of accomplished Black men, all wearing black hoodies. In the words of David Lammy MP, one of Williams’subjects, it seeks ´to liberate Black men from invisibility´. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 galvanised Williams further – he heard the news when he was expecting the birth of his son, shattering his hopes that his baby might be born into a world in which a Black man could walk down the street without fear. Subsequently, he published Letter To Zion for his son, outlining his vision for global dialogue, representation and equality. The same year, he developed the Black British Network, a platform for tangible change, which has drawn support from such industry giants as Sony, Clear Channel and Sainsbury’s.

A community project with vast scope, Portrait of Black Britain makes a difference to everybody. ´This is me taking control of my narrative´, said Williams, ´and asking other Black people to join me in the re-introduction of our presence and stories in the 21st century´.

I Love You Too, another MIF exhibition,  is a poignant collection of love letters, sited at Manchester’s restored Central Library

Many of us will have been made acutely aware of what we love, what we’ve lost, and what we miss over the course of this past 18 months – such that the idea of writing a love letter might seem a good one. A necessary one, even. Kemang Wa Lehulere’s tender new work, then, arrives with perfect timing: I Love You Too is a book that brings together hundreds of love letters created by Greater Manchester residents in collaboration with local writers, with an exhibition of new work by Wa Lehulere. The objects of their affection run the gamut from local haunts to beloved people; there are paens to Glastonbury, the Eiffel Tower, sneakers, manhole covers, live music, netball and the sea.

And these poetic pieces shine with sincerity. ´Born of Wythenshawe´, opens a piece by Roy, 67, ´made in the factories, a place where workers like me were raised by the best jest and zest of a Manchester community´. Elsewhere, Holly, 23, celebrated Oldham: ´A young woman, in her Kardashian-esque lounge wear and pink fluffy sliders, off to the newsagents for her fags – looking like a star!´; and Kemoy, 30, still thinks about Miss Evans, his secondary school form tutor – ´one of the first to show an 11-year-old Jamaican boy kindness.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, I Love You Too at MIF marks the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopedia of devotion.
Both the above exhibitions showed throughout MIF at Manchester Central Library from 2-10 July, and ticket were free.

Poetry, of course, is always a staple diet of the Manchester International Festival feast of arts.

A question was posed in the group show Poet Slash Artist: what is poetry and what is art, and what happens when they come together? Its answers ruan the length and breadth of the city, in the form of outdoor artwork by such diverse poet-artists as Tracey Emin, Precious Okoyomon, Lubaina Himid, Sky Hopinka and Isaiah Hull. In addition, Cerys Matthews curated a day of spoken word and music at open-air stage Homeground (2 July). And for a fully immersive, poetic experience to light up the senses, Deborah Warner presented her starry Arcadia installation at the Factory, celebrating poetry and the natural world.

She may be based in Brooklyn, New York, but Nigerian-American artist Precious Okoyomon (right) is known and celebrated internationally. Her work defies genre – it has included a home for giant African snails and an on-going queer cooking collective – and explores the idea of portals and transformation. One unchanging constant in her work is poetry. Before she scooped this year’s prestigious Frieze artist award in New York, Precious told Frieze: ´I started making art because I wanted to give my poetry form´. As an eight-year-old child, Okoyomon even stopped speaking for a year, communicating via poems buried in the ground or stuffed into trees.

Okoyomon is one of a new generation of poets connecting with visual art and vice versa. And they arshe was onee one of 25 artists invited to be part of the group show Poet Slash Artist, put together by the poet Lemn Sissay and art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. ´There is a long and vivid history of exchange between artists and poets, from cubism to Dada to surrealism´, the co-curators explained, and over the past year they have united an incredible group of “luminous” figures who bring art and poetry together.

Between them, these artist-poets forge new links across cultures, continents, languages and generations, from Syria to Ireland, and range from newcomers such as Jay Bernard, to household name Tracey Emin, as well as veteran political organiser for the American Indian Movement Jimmie Durham to upcoming Manchester MC Isaiah Hull. Alongside the gallery exhibition, each person had created a brand new work for installation in public spaces across the city. As the 96-year old painter and poet Etel Adnan, a Syrian-American born in Lebanon, said, “The world needs togetherness, not separation´´ .
the exhibition was shown at Home and tickets were free.

Theatre director Deborah Warner (left) created a soothing and profound ode to nature.

Given a sliver of time and space in which to recover, wildlife will thrive – hence the ubiquitous ´nature is healing´ meme. But the same is true for humans who are able to make contact with the natural world; nature is healing to us. And it’s our profound connection to it that’s at the heart of Deborah Warner’s new installation for MIF: Arcadia.

This immersive experience was the inaugural event at The Factory – the huge, multipurpose arts space currently under construction that will become MIF’s permanent home. Luminous tents emitted the sounds of poems inspired by nature and created by such poets as Sappho, WB Yeats and Jackie Kay, read by a cast that included Brian Cox, Jane Horrocks and Jonathan Pryce. In the centre of Manchester, an Arcadia indeed, was show at

Music – and specifically the one-off, live extravaganza – has defined Manchester International Festival since its inception, from Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera (2009) to Bjork’s Biophilia live debut (2011) and Massive Attack’s collaboration with Adam Curtis (2013). This year’s line-up was similarly impressive, with a multi-genre line-up that offered something for everyone; a sonic balm after a year without live music.

Arlo Parks

Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho  known professionally as Arlo Parks, (also shown as our cover picture and at the top of this article) is a British singer-songwriter and poet. Her debut studio album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, was released in 2021 to critical acclaim and peaked at number three on the UK Albums Chart. It earned her nominations for Album of the YearBest New Artist and Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2021 Brit Awards.

As big a star of British music as she is becoming – bagging the Brit award this year for best new artist, not to mention winning praise from Billie Eilish, Michelle Obama and winning the praise of Phoebe Bridgers – the 20-year old London singer- songwriter Arlo Parks expressed herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, this January’s Collapsed in Sunbeams.

Parks is a self-described empath, and her softly reflective, confessional songs, often written on her phone, found an intimate setting at one of a series of  one-off shows for Manchester International Festival, which featured a string section from the Royal Northern College of Music backing up the sweet-voiced singer.

Parks chose her stage name as a distinctive personal pseudonym, inspired by King Krule and Frank Ocean. In 2018, she began uploading demos to BBC Music Introducing. This caught the attention of radio presenters across the UK who distributed these demos to Ali Raymond of Beatnik Creative, who soon began managing Parks. She made her solo debut when she released the song Cola through Beatnik Records in November 2018, and announced the release of her debut EP, Super Sad Generation. She told Line of Best Fit that the song is ´a reminder that betrayal is inevitable when it comes to pretty people that think flowers fix everything´. Olivia Swash wrote that the vocals on the song ´flourish thanks to [Parks’] creative writing background, with her delicate tone taking centre stage against the gently plodding guitars and soft crackle of vinyl´. By November 2019, the song had amassed over three million streams on Spotify.

Following the release of Cola, Parks signed to Transgressive Records. She released the title track of her upcoming EP, Super Sad Generation, in January 2019. Robin Murray told Clash that the song portrays an “astute, nuanced creative control that also utilises word-play that speaks of youthful emotions spinning out of control.” Her third single, “Romantic Garbage”, was released in March 2019, before the release of the full four-track EP, Super Sad Generation in early April 2019. The EP was recorded in her home in South West London and an Airbnb in the Angel district of London.

Parks performed her first-ever gig at The Great Escape in Brighton in May 2019 and has gone on to perform on the BBC Music Introducing stage at Glastonbury Festival in late June 2019, as well as at Latitude Festival in July 2019. She embarked on her first tour supporting Jordan Rakei on the UK leg of his tour in September 2019. Throughout the last half of 2019 Parks released the songs George,  Second Guessing,  Sophie, and Angel’s Song ahead of her second EP, Sophie. Sean Kerwick told DIY that the five-track EP ´oozes with the hang-ups of heartbreak and mortality; a topic that seems to overshadow many gen-Z musicians.´

Parks embarked on her first headlining tour of Europe in February and March 2020, but could not complete it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, Parks released the singles “Eugene” and “Black Dog“, which were well received during the COVID-19 lockdown, the latter of which became BBC Radio 1‘s Tune of the Week. Parks made the front cover of NME in late July 2020. She won the AIM Independent Music Award for One to Watch in 2020 in August 2020, after losing the same award to Georgia a year before. Parks and Moses Boyd made the front cover of Music Week for the publication’s indie takeover special following the AIM Awards ceremony. Parks released her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, on 29 January 2021.

On 12th February 2021, Parks was the music act on The Graham Norton Show singing ‘Caroline’. On 19 February 2021, Parks was the main guest of Jools Holland on his BBC programme Later….

On 11 May, she won the Breakthrough Artist Award at the 2021 Brit Awards.

Parks is openly bisexual and is based in London. She was educated at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith and completed her A Levels in early 2019 at Ashbourne College. In her auto-biographical blurb on her Spotify profile, Parks claimed that she spent most of secondary school “feeling like that black kid who couldn’t dance for shit, listening to too much emo music and crushing on some girl in her Spanish class.´

Parks has named Sylvia Plath and Joni Mitchell as among her influences.

Playing to a masked, distanced audience may not be every singer’s dream but her MIF performance was one of dazzling intimacy

 ‘This is the first time we’ve ever played these songs live’

Only three years ago, Arlo Parks was performing in a clothes shop with a band of school friends to a handful of people including, helpfully, a talent scout. Now, still only 20, she has an acclaimed top-three album, Collapsed in Sunbeams; a Brit award for breakthrough artist; fans including Billie Eilish and Elton John; and this plum booking at the Manchester international festival. Playing to a vast, socially distanced space and a mostly masked audience is not how every kid imagines stardom. “This is my first show for 19 months and the first time we’ve ever played these songs live,” begins the star, dressed down in loose-fitting jacket and combat trousers. “I’m very nervous. Enjoy yourselves … but stay seated!”

In fact, it works. The cavernous space and high-fidelity sound provide the perfect environment for her voice to breathe, and what a joy it is – vulnerable and childlike, yet strong and determined.

The west London-born singer describes herself as an “empath” and candidly addresses universal concerns, from desire to mental health to Covid-19, as well as more personal dilemmas such as falling for a straight female friend. Her singing often has a conversational style – as if she’s confiding in you directly – which feels genuine and natural. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel something for once?” she sings in Hurt. In Sophie she admits, “I’m just a kid, I suffocate and slip,/ I hate that we’re all sick.”

photo 3 A crack sextet – some of whom who have been with her since she was 17 – lay down the jazzy, funky, trip-hoppy vehicle for Parks’s airy tones to soar. At times it’s like Lily Allen or Corinne Bailey Rae fronting Massive Attack. At another point Parks, a Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf fan, reads the poem that starts her album, full of emotive imagery such as ´the turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything´.

Arlo with string players from RNCM

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) string players arrive to make the music lusher while content darkens. Black Dog, released during the pandemic, addresses someone: ´I’d lick the grief right off your lips,/ you do your eyes like Robert Smith,/ sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this´. Super Sad Generation – one of the songs that lumbered her with the unwelcome ´voice of a generation´ tag – could be a list of hip travails were it not so real and vivid: ´Start doing ketamine at weekends, getting wasted at the station and trying to keep our friends from death´.

At the end, she talks about the joy of seeing people gathered together and how hard these times have been for all of us. She pointedly leaves with a song titled Hope, and lines such as ´We all have scars,/ I know it’s hard,/ you’re not alone like you think you are´ resonate like all the others.

Arlo Parks will also play Latitude festival, Suffolk, 22-25 July, then tour.

Musical polymath Damon Albarn (right) is a long-term friend of MIF, whose diverse contributions have included a star-studded Gorillaz show and two operas. This year, Albarn brought new life to songs from across his extraordinary, three decade-long songbook, from Blur and Gorillaz to the Good, the Bad & the Queen and his solo work, accompanied by a band and string quartet.

Fans heard from his new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, which takes its title from John Clare’s poem Love And Memory. Inspired by the landscapes of Iceland, these new songs deftly navigate notions of fragility, emergence and rebirth. He played at Central Hall, Manchester on 12th and 13th July.

Muneera Salaam (left) simultaneously stirred and uplifted, as the sounds of west African griot music and south Asian qawwali offered a true tonic for frazzled souls. What was so special about this showcase, launching a new festival of Islamic culture, was that these male-dominated traditions were being reimagined by young women: exquisite fusion singer and veena player Abi Sampa first rose to international recognition after appearing on The Voice in 2013 and now performs as part of Orchestral Qawwali;

Sona Jobarteh

Pioneering Gambian musician Sona Jobarteh is the first female kora master to come from the ancient griot tradition, and is cousin to Toumani Diabaté. It was all hosted and performed with poet and musician Muneera Williams, co-founder of the Muslim spoken-word duo. Poetic Pilgrimage. The Guardian described this as á dazzling gem of an offering´

The perfect soundtrack to our collective re-emergence from a year of isolation, this new contemporary concerto by garlanded young composer Dobrinka Tabakova (left) takes its cues from the natural world, from the delicate opening threads of its opening violin melody to the great swells of strings that follow.

Performed by the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra, the programme was devised by violinist Hugo Ticciati and featured other works exploring nature and the city. These include Tabakova’s meditative piece Frozen River Flows, Steve Reich’s mesmerising New York Counterpoint, with its dawn chorus evocation, plus Vulpes Vulpes, a new commission by Paul Saggers, the winner of the O/Modernt composition award. This took place at Central Hall Manchester on 18th July 2021.

Ready to dance? Established in Lagos, Nigeria in 2017 by Skepta’s manager Grace Ladoja, Homecoming is among the world’s most electrifying music festivals, operating as a true creative exchange between Nigeria, the African diaspora and beyond.

Now, Homecoming landed in Manchester, with live performances from Nigerian Afrorave hitmaker Rema, alongside eclectic Manchester-based DJ and producer Anz, plus London’s balaclava-toting Afrobeat star – ´the joker herself´ – Midas the Jagaban. Homecoming Live was hosted by Julie Adenuga and supplied a tantalising taster for a new partnership with MIF, set to culminate with a full-on Homecoming takeover of MIF’s future permanent home, The Factory. Their gig, at Central Hall, Manchester on 17th July was quite the warm-up.

Primary sources for the is article were the MIF web site and The Guardian, with their non-stop stream of excellent writings on the arts.

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