Estuary 2021’s mix of large and intimate scale visual art, literature, music and film took place over 23 days, from 22 May to 13 June 2021, celebrating culture, creativity, recovery and renewal. The festival was curated in response to the spectacular Thames Estuary and the lives, landscapes and histories found there. We festival hosted 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 worked to reshape the programme to ensure the production of a safe and exciting festival. The programme featured 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 presented new perspectives on well-known estuary landmarks and invited audiences to explore some of the lesser known estuary environments.
Map created by Baxter & Bailey
This was 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 revealed hidden architectural gems, celebrated the great literary heritage of the river, inspired new literary responses and provided maps and guides to walking the estuary. The website displayed new artworks connected to the wider programme, a specially curated film programme, and a series of artists’ podcasts.
Estuary 2021 saw 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 title of Into The Mystery of an Unknown Earth (taken from Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad), the event was 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 was a site specific performance conceived by Arbonauts, artists Helen Galliano and Dimitri Launder. Imagining a dystopian future of rising sea levels, it was performed in the water of the distinctive tidal pool at East Beach in Shoeburyness at the very eastern reaches of Thames Estuary. The work featured local open-water swimmers and students from East 15 Acting School, part of University of Essex.
Bob and Roberta Smith created a pavilion in Chatham, an open air gallery, where everyone was 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 was a co-commission with Medway Council.
Draw Hope by Bob & Roberta Smith, photo: Rob Harris
Writer Robert Macfarlane, theatre maker Zoe Svendsen and sound designer Carolyn Downing collaborated 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 was experienced through headphones and invited 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 City Council.
The Water Replies is a participatory journaling and creative writing project, which was shaped and led by poets Selina Nwulu and Caroline Bird. Since March 2020, the project invited creative responses from people of all ages living along the estuary coastlines of Essex and Kent, and over 450 creative journals were sent to estuary residents to be shared during the festival. Written by Caroline and Selina with contributions from other poets, we also launched the publication ‘The Water Replies: Notes on Teaching Contemporary Poetry’, designed to assist teachers to inspire their students to write poetry. Partnerships with C2C and Southeastern railways saw posters carrying these poems in stations and other sites across the festival geography.
Gravesham based Cohesion Plus, culturally diverse producers of community festivals and melas, and advocates for increased diversity within the arts, made a new film about identity, race and diversity for Estuary 2021. The film explored Gravesham’s diverse communities, looked 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, was 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 saw 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 responded to the landscape and layered histories of this site drawing on stimulating parallels with the contemporary themes of the festival, including: 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 saw 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 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 were published, with live readings as part of the festival.
We also partnered with England’s Creative Coast to co-commission two works as part of the Estuary 2021 programme. Katrina Palmer’s HELLO RETREAT in Shoeburyness and Jasleen Kaur’s The first thing I did was to kiss the ground in Gravesend.