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Estuary 2021
22 May – 13 June 2021
Multiple sites along the Essex and Kent shorelines

We’re happy to announce the first part of the programme for Estuary 2021, curated in response to the spectacular Thames Estuary and the lives, landscapes and histories found there.

Now in its second edition, Estuary 2021 will feature contemporary artworks, performance, discussion and events that explore and respond to powerful themes resonant to the Estuary, from the climate, to rebellion and imperial legacy.

Estuary 2021’s mix of large and intimate scale visual art, literature, music and film will take place over 23 days, from 22 May to 13 June 2021, celebrating culture, creativity, recovery and renewal. The festival will host site-specific works in the landscape, alongside animating the wharfs, piers, high streets and venues of key estuary towns including Southend, Chatham, and Gravesend.

Originally imagined before Covid-19, we’ve worked together to reshape the programme to ensure the production of a safe and exciting festival. The programme will feature performance, including a site specific performance by Arbonauts; installation; immersive storytelling; GPS audio, such as the re-imagining of Ness by Robert Macfarlane; murals, walks and tours that present new perspectives on well-known estuary landmarks and invite audiences to explore some of the lesser known estuary environments.

This will be accompanied by an online programme of discussion, bringing together artists, scientists and activists from the estuary and beyond to audiences from around the world. A series of publications will reveal hidden architectural gems, celebrate the great literary heritage of the river, inspire new literary responses and provide maps and guides to walking the estuary. Our website will display new artworks connected to the wider programme, a specially curated film programme, and a series of artists’ podcasts released throughout the festival.

Announced commissions include:
An Opening Weekend of live broadcast discussion and specially commissioned online artworks exploring the three key themes of climate, rebellion and imperial legacy. With the working title of Into The Mystery of an Unknown Earth (taken from Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad), the event will be brought together by four artists and curators all of whom know the estuary as home:

Jas Dhillon is a multimedia practitioner inspired by the people, script, language, symbolic objects, and poetic experiences, of the love and identity imprinted on her as a first-generation Indian female raised in Kent.  

Elsa James is a British African-Caribbean, conceptual artist and activist living in Southend-on-Sea. Recent projects Forgotten Black Essex (2018) and Black Girl Essex (2019) explore the historical, temporal and spatial dimensions of what it means to be black in Essex.

James Marriott, writer, artist, activist and naturalist, lives on the Hoo Peninsula, and his forthcoming book Crude Britannia, tells the story of Britain’s energy past, present and future with a focus on the Thames Estuary.

Lu Williams who through Grrrl Zine Fair has been amplifying marginalised voices with a focus on DIY culture, workshops, intersectional feminism and working class culture since 2015.

SILT will be a site specific performance conceived by Arbonautsartists Helen Galliano and Dimitri Launder. Imagining a dystopian future of rising sea levels, it will be performed in the water of the distinctive tidal pool at East Beach in Shoeburyness at the very eastern reaches of Thames Estuary. The work will feature local open-water swimmers and students from East 15 Acting School, part of University of Essex.

Bob and Roberta Smith will create a pavilion in Chatham, an open air gallery, where everyone is invited to ‘take a line for a walk’, adding to a new work of art that is created collectively over the 23 days of the festival, exploring how we can Draw Hope, and together find solutions for the big questions and issues of our time. The work is a co-commission with Medway Council.

Writer Robert Macfarlane, theatre maker Zoe Svendsen and sound designer Carolyn Downing are collaborating to stage a re-imagining of Robert’s book, Ness (Hamish Hamilton, 2019) written in collaboration with the artist Stanley Donwood.  Set within the ex-MOD site, Gunners Park at Shoeburyness, the GPS sonic work will be experienced through headphones and will invite audiences to listen to the landscape reveal its past, as we witness the physical remnants of that history being reclaimed by nature. Working in close partnership with Essex Wildlife Trust and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. 

The Water Replies is a participatory journaling and creative writing project, being shaped and led by poets Selina Nwulu and Caroline Bird. It invites creative responses from people of all ages living in the towns and villages along the estuary coastlines of Essex and Kent and has been capturing life by the estuary with words and images since March 2020. Over 450 creative journals are with estuary residents with many already completed and ready to share during the festival.

The second stage of this project is launched today with the publication of The Water Replies: Notes on Teaching Contemporary Poetry. Written by Caroline and Selina and with contributions from other poets, the book is designed to assist teachers to inspire their students to write poetry.  With the book comes the accompanying invitation to schools, teachers and young people from across the estuary to send us their poems for exhibition during the festival. Partnerships with C2C and Southeastern railways will see posters carrying these poems in stations and other sites across our festival geography.

Gravesham based Cohesion Plus, culturally diverse producers of community festivals and melas, and advocates for increased diversity within the arts, are making a new film about identity, race and diversity for Estuary 2021. The film will explore Gravesham’s diverse communities, looking at how people get pigeon-holed, and the multiple, unexpected and rich identities that people hold.

Sadie Hennessy’s Golden Years, a co-commission with Gravesham Borough Council, is inspired by the pop culture collections of Peter Blake (who grew up locally and attended art school in Gravesend, where he started his own pop culture collection). The co-commission will see a series of shop windows in Gravesend, filled with people’s own collections of memorabilia and ephemera, accompanied by a gold ice cream van broadcasting the stories behind those collections.

Wat Tyler Country Park is 125 acres of natural landscape at the tip of Vange Creek, one of many estuary tributaries and channels. The park is named after the infamous leader of the Great Rising (also referred to as the Peasants Revolt) of 1381 which started in the nearby Essex village of Fobbing. 

For Estuary 2021, 18 artists will respond to the landscape and layered histories of this site drawing on stimulating parallels with the contemporary themes of the festival.  Of those 18 artists, we are announcing 14 today:  Shaun C. Badham; Angela Chan (Worm: art + ecology); Ruth Ewan; Jo Fong; Andy Freeman; Sonia Hughes; Lisa Mattocks; Harun Morrison; Morgan O’Hara; Samantha Penn; Helen Prichard, Jara Rocha and Femke Snelting (Underground Division) and Andrew Westle.

2021 sees the 20th anniversary of Tom King’s book Thames Estuary Trail: A Walk around the end of the World (Desert Island Books, 2001), the first and to date, the only book that describes the entire estuary coastline as an epic 83 mile walk.  We partnered with the Thames Estuary Growth Board to commission new chapters for a 2nd edition of the book, alongside a series of artists commissions that will inspire the intrepid among you to set out on the walk of a lifetime.  A longer-term project through the TEGB will see the Trail, its footpaths, access to the water, signage and information all improved to create one of the UK’s great journeys on foot.  We are encouraging walkers to share their own experiences through #ThamesEstuaryTrail.

We commissioned four contemporary writers, Amina Atiq, Season Butler, Alison Moore and Martha Pailing to create a new work in response to the extraordinary site of Sutton Manner, a historic Manor House built in 1681.  It now sits behind perimeter fencing on MOD land at Shoeburyness with its magnificent facade and beautiful walled garden with a huge Cedar Tree in the centre.  A Grade II* listing means the house is protected heritage, however, its situation means that it is beyond the reach of public attention and use.  Not many people know the house is there with very little information in the public realm about it; who has lived there; why it was built; what was the community that surrounded it in 1861.  It is a seemingly suspended place in time, in its history and in its future and is a fascinating site for writers to respond to. A site visit, set up with the MOD was cancelled due to the first Covid-19 lockdown, making the challenge of the already remote house extended by adding the further remoteness and inaccessibility of the global pandemic.  The writers’ responses all take very different starting points and will be published, with live readings as part of the festival.

Last but not least, we partnered with England’s Creative Coast to co-commission two works that will feature as part of the Estuary 2021 programme.  Details of these commissions will be announced in 2021.

The full Estuary 2021 programme will be announced early next year. We hope to see you during those summer days and nights!

Get involved in Estuary 2021 through open calls, the Associated Programme, artist-led workshops, work placements and volunteering – join our Facebook event to keep up to date with future opportunities:

Estuary 2021: First Programme Announcement