The 2021 Adelaide Festival program was prepared in the most turbulent year of the festival’s 36-year history. Even the program launch had to be postponed after Adelaide’s snap lockdown. Despite the erratic circumstances, the festival will open this Friday with 70 events across theatre, music, opera, dance, film, food and visual arts over 17 days. While other Australian arts festivals adapted to Covid with exclusively local line-ups, Adelaide Festival’s artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy have pressed go on a number of international shows.

“We wanted to ensure Adelaide Festival remained true to a 60-year tradition of bringing great international artists and events to our city, while simultaneously supporting Adelaide companies and others from throughout Australia,” the pair said in a joint statement. “We know that people will look back on the 2021 festival as one to remember. We hope that it will also offer opportunities for renewal and restoration and a boost of energy, optimism and joy.”

While a handful of shows have sold out already, there’s still plenty to get stuck into. Here are our pick of the program.

Plastic Bag Store

The Plastic Bag Store is a free installation by New York artist Robin Frohardt, who’s flown into Adelaide to oversee its re-creation (after two weeks in quarantine) in the old Harris Scarfe in Rundle Mall. On first glimpse the installation – which had a successful run in Times Square late last year – appears to be a pop-up supermarket. But on closer inspection it’s a tragicomic ode to plastic waste; every handmade frozen dinner, box of breakfast cereal, milk container, deli salad and piece of fruit and veg is 100 per cent plastic, sourced from the streets and bins of New York City. Bring the kids and wander the aisles at your leisure or book a free guided tour with its New York creators. The hour-long activations include a series of short films featuring puppets and animation.

Running February 23 to March 14 at Level 1, Rundle Place.

Race Cards

One weekend in 2016, UK-based performer Selina Thompson sat down and wrote 1000 questions about race. (#71 “What are the dangers of making art about race?” #220 “My mum does not talk about race any more. It makes her uncomfortable, tired. Will this happen to me?”) The result is Race Cards, a regularly evolving and interactive exhibition that feels especially timely in light of the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. It comes to Adelaide after seasons in Canada, Ireland, Germany, the US and across the UK. The (free) installation features 1000 questions about race, written on cards. Audience members are invited to read as many as they can, then choose one to answer. It’s accompanied by a filmed durational performance by Thompson as she reads out each of the questions.

Running February 26 to March 14 at the Institute Building at the State Library of South Australia.

The Image Is Not Nothing

Before the pandemic, curators Lisa Radford and Yhonnie Scarce travelled the world to visit sites of devastation, including Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Hiroshima, Maralinga, New York, Wounded Knee Creek and former Yugoslavia. The Image Is Not Nothing, a powerful new exhibition at ACE Open, is the result of that journey. It features works by more than 20 emerging and established artists from Australia and abroad.

The exhibition grapples with these histories – there are reactions from Japanese artists to Hiroshima and Fukushima, New York artists to Ground Zero, Croatian artists to Ustase concentration camps and more – in the context of Australia’s own colonialism and genocide. “The intention of our research was to discover what and how other countries and societies were dealing with trauma, genocide and nuclear colonisation, and how they represented it,” says Scarce. “Australia has a long way to go in terms acknowledging the treatment of Aboriginal people when this country was colonised.”

The exhibition highlights atrocities that occurred on home soil, including the nuclear weapons development testing carried out on Indigenous ancestral lands from 1952 to 1963. One of the tests at Maralinga in South Australia reached twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. ACE Open’s artistic director, Patrice Sharkey, says “the absence of timely media coverage and public debate have created a gap in most people's understanding” of these events. “The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives) brings this atrocity into the public imagination.”

Running February 26 to April 24 at ACE Open.

Fangirls

Fangirls was one of the standout Australian theatre hits of 2019. With a story and music by young Sydney-born writer Yve Blake, it’s a celebratory, hilarious and touching musical that’ll delight anyone who was once a wide-eyed adolescent at a pop concert (raises hand). Blake was inspired to write the show after considering the way society can see a mob of screaming fans as “embarrassing” (if female, and at a pop concert) or “passionate” (if male, and at a footy match). The result is an enlightening comedy about the many “ways the world tries to convince young women that they’re not as worthy as their brothers”. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a life-affirming night” and really is there much more you can ask for from the theatre?

Running February 27 to March 14 at Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground.

Ngarku’adlu

This family-friendly picnic at the University of Adelaide has enlisted top Indigenous chefs to share their knowledge of First Nations fare. Each guest will receive a picnic box filled with native food prepared by chef Clayton Donovan – a Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung man who grew up on the mid-north coast of New South Wales and the first Indigenous chef to run a Good Food-hatted restaurant, Jaaning Tree. He’s also behind Clare Valley-based Warndu, an Indigenous-owned food business that produces goods using native ingredients. As part of the picnic guests can view food-related items from the South Australian Museum, including grinding stones, dishes, specialised cutting tools and other Aboriginal artefacts.

Damien Coulthard, an Adnyamathanha and Dieri man and co-founder of Warndu, told Broadsheet last month the event is a way for the wider community to rethink its connection with First Nations culture. “This is an extraordinary way for South Australia to celebrate and acknowledge the longest living culture in the world through the Aboriginal lens of place, taste and story.”

Running March 13 and 14 at the University of Adelaide's Barr Smith Lawns.

Adelaide Festival is on from February 26 till March 14. Tickets are on sale now.

adelaidefestival.com.au