Avant Gardening in Ethoipia

Avant Gardening in Ethoipia

Polly was invited to run an International Residency with Gasworks in 2011

Introduction (from Gasworks' International Fellowship page)

Polly Brannan’s practice explores different ways of communication through a variety of media, using community networks and through working collaboratively with different people. She is particularly interested in how public spaces function as sites where skills and local knowledge are shared and exchanged.
As a member of the collective Avant-Gardening, Brannan has developed several art and gardening workshops aimed at engaging the public in environmental issues. Through her involvement with the art and architecture group Public Works she has contributed to projects that investigate how design and programmatic strategies can support and facilitate the development of physical, economical and social infrastructures in the public realm.
During her residency in Abroethiopia, in Addis Ababa, Brannan plans to take advantage of her position as an outsider to explore local forms of communication and strategies that emerge when language is a barrier. By developing and encouraging participation in public games, Brannan will add to her ongoing project ‘mobile museum’, which contains games, stories, and documentation of the various uses of public spaces she encounters in her work and travels.

Diary From Africa

Polly will be based in one of the condominiums in the heard of Addis Ababa. Here she will be working with the local community from this housing project to produce a community space.

Ideas so far include a shared garden space, mobile tea garden, seating areas with hand made cushions and a series of guides, collages and mappings of the city and local area

Polly is situated within walking distance of Asni Gallery, she will be running a series of events between the gallery and the condinium housing project including an artist talk, exhibition and community events

Addis Ababa

Jan 14 2011


This is now my third day in Addis and I am already starting to connect to the city and my surroundings. Getting your bearings here is a challenge, as Assefa an artist I have been spending time with here keeps telling me you must follow your nose.

Right now I am sitting on my balcony and I smell some kind of burning outside for making lunch, it smells like a very sweet and bitter plant of some sort…I can also hear call to prayer.  And I can also hear the pounding of coffee outside on the floor - bashing the beans down into granules.

No maps make sense here and there are not always streets and postcodes, there are four main roads that I have explored that take me north, east, south and west. What I have come to realise is that the best way of marking yourself and your direction is, as London Cabbies do with learning the ‘knowledge,’ is to have landmarks.


I have decided one of the things I will produce here is a map highlighting areas of the city that I have come across (best places for materials, public space to explore etc). I like the idea of a series of maps, changing, developing and evolving over my time here in Addis.

Every corner you turn is bustling with noises, smells and people. From do it yourself make shift shops and corners on the road to sell your produce to the huge construction sites of hotels being built you can see quite clearly how this city is changing rapidly.

What makes this city so alive are the streets and narrow lanes of self made houses and purpose built shops, of course development of the city is a vital and important thing but not at the cost of the people that make this city what it is.

The main concern I can see here is the rights of the land that local people live and work on. The government can pay them for this land but at extremely and quite astonishingly low cost; huge areas of land are being demolished and local people being forced outside of the city centre as huge business developments are built.

Is there a town planner here? The great shame is seeing how quickly things will change here and that the city developers and government have not looked at the mistakes and problems that so many western cities have had through this type of urban change. What is the history of urban planning here and the vision of its future?

You can see the rapid speed in which this city is changing, there seems no real reflection on how the city will work once these buildings are up but instead it is just to get them up and get them up quick. I went to the Inter-Continental hotel last night and the views over the city are quite something but strange to think of the guests looking over at some city slums whilst having a manicure or enjoying the hotel’s facilities. But at least it is mixed, rich and poor together, rather than segregated…

But this very expensive hotel has already lost its best feature, the view from the top of the hotel, from an open air swimming pool. The city vista has totally vanished now and all you can you see is another hotel block.

Addis Ababa

Jan 17 2011


Everything in this city is recycled, unlike in the UK where we are now told we ‘have to,’ here it is just a way of life, nothing is wasted. Obviously this is partly to do with economic situations and a way of surviving but it really does create such an amazing city and way of life.

For this reason I want to try and work with these notions and recycle as much as I can, as I do anyway in the UK. What is exciting to me is the use of new recycled materials and changing the function of them.

From observing the conder house I am staying in with local people, I can see the potential of the outdoor space here. There is a lovely sloping green between the dusty road and a bunch of beautiful huge trees towering over the site. A few residents already use old plastic tubs to grow their own flowers, which is something I am keen to do also. The only problems I see are the lack of bins and the litter that is spreading quite quickly

Children play outside as it is fairly self contained and the only traffic is the residents, very few have cars so it is a pretty safe environment. Adults seem to hang out more on the balconies and stairways. What I was thinking would be nice is to have a communal area outside to grow herbs, flowers and plants and to even have a ‘tea’ garden-I want to find and use old containers to build a garden, seating area and perhaps if possible, something mobile that is multi functional - A place to sit, talk, plant, garden, draw and drink tea like a mobile café.

I will begin to work with a small group of the community, a group of children who already attend workshops on Saturdays in the flat above me.

I want to slowly build up the idea of their local environment and the potential of their shared space outside. I plan to work with the kids, initially drawing and observing the local environment and then, over time, introduce ideas of potential uses of this space and hope that they initiate some ideas for the sculptural garden project. It would be great to have a series of events with this community; from planting days to talks at the gallery and an exhibition of the children’s work in the studio at the conder house-also encouraging the participation of the adults and families to get involved and take an interest.


I took a trip to the famous MERAKETO market-the largest open-air market in Africa to look through the materials and get some inspiration for the garden project. On reaching the market, I quickly realised the sheer volume of this market. The noises and dust are unbelievable as are the shouting and clanging sounds of industrial materials.

Asseffa took me into the market, following the smallest and narrowest side paths I have ever seen, with hundreds and hundreds of small sheds (about the size of 2 men to fit inside as well as all the materials) as you can imagine everybody was surprised to see me in the depths of it-with men shouting to Asseffa warning I would get filthy being in the thick of it and concerned men shouting out to be careful of my huge gold necklace (which in fact is plastic!)

I could not believe the amount of materials; areas of metals, leather, and plastics-it really is never ending and a labyrinth and wealth of craftsmanship and industrial materials. It was a great inspiration for me to see what materials I could work with.

We found a young guy bashing the life out of some old sinks which still had the old paint on the outside, bright blues, and scarlet colours. My first thought was how great these would be for the garden project-as they already have 2 holes in the bottom they would be ideal for planting as the water can drain through the holes.

Next there were hundreds of yellow and blue plastic containers used for oil. It is like a machine in this market everything comes in used, beaten and torn and is then taken and re shaped and given the life back and then sold on again-A cycle.

There is something incredibly nostalgic about these materials, used, thrown out and then re made and used again-how may lives have these objects had? How many hands have used them?

The olive oil containers are beautiful too, such vibrant colours and illustrations these would be great to use a planting pots-perhaps for the tea garden?

I found some beautiful pieces of metal which had been worked with and now beautiful decorative flowers and silver semi circles. These are sold on to the next person and used on smart gates/doors for housing compounds and hotels. These would be ideal to weld onto the sinks to create a decorative pattern for the garden-perhaps the kids can paint them a new colour?

I plan to go back ASAP to start collecting these materials-should I try and build something on wheels? Or perhaps as an option do I build two different models, one garden and one more mobile café/drawing space?


Artist talk with slide show and fanzines.

 Plant Family-bring cuttings, seeds, clippings and unwanted plants to Asni gallery

Tea Garden morning with the mobile café-and a fanzine workshop?

Exhibition of kids work at condor house

Planting day at conder house

Final event-exhibition at conder house with photos of work, walk to garden space and walk to Asni with mobile space



More metal to decorate

Olive Oil containers

Plastic Crates for seats

Wooden crates




Clanging, pounding, moulding, reshaping, spaghetti, lush, varied, ideal, building, construction, and speed, vast, always alive, dusty. Golden, burning, cooking, metal, recycle, churches, prayers, running stream, mix and match, coffee, cheering, laughter, busy sounds, washing line filled, special, potential, unique, peaceful, community, understanding. Traffic muffles with prayers from church over laying underneath the sounds of a river and a small child repeatedly pounding  the coffee beans on the floor


artwork by polly brannan
website by the useful arts organisation