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Abeba Esse

Abeba Esse garden at the Chelsea Flower Show (2024) by Zak Ové

Franklin Nelson


For a week every May since 1913, apart from during the two world wars, a corner of west London has thrummed with green-fingered folk. The Chelsea Flower Show might have begun life as a lone marquee of exhibitors but it is now the most famous flower show in the world, known to many by the first word in its title.

Enjoyed by people from around the world, the event welcomes amateurs and professionals alike, with the latter competing for a highly sought-after Gold Medal. In 1952 the show gained the royal seal of approval when Queen Elizabeth II became patron of the Royal Horticultural Society. Just this month, the gardening charity that puts on Chelsea announced King Charles III would succeed his late mother in the role.

Also newly installed for this year’s show is Zak Ové’s garden Abeba Esse. Composed of two palindromes (words that read the same whether read from left to right or right to left), the title evokes ‘flower’ and ‘essences’ in Amharic. Ové’s garden, commissioned by the Saatchi Gallery, is of course concerned with the former: it would not exist but for plants and flowers. But it is also concerned, in ways both more subtle and more obvious, with the latter, and the stories we tell ourselves about how and why we came to be.

The latest manifestation of Ové’s long-running  interest in throwing light on invisible histories, Abeba Esse consists of three defined spaces. The first lands us in a sub-Saharan African jungle with sprawling plants and bold pink anthuriums rioting stylishly. From there to the Caribbean, where tilled brown soil nods to the monocultures sparked by the advent of plantation slavery. Out of the ground emerge sculptures of tight black fists: beneath large banana leaves is a representation of Black Power, perhaps dormant but nevertheless resistant.

On the final stop of this triangular tour, we arrive in an English country garden. It boasts a small lawn and neat flowerbeds in the style of Inigo Jones, who is credited with introducing classical influences into this country’s architectural tradition.

Ové, who secured the commission about four months ago, says the idea for a space that ‘really looks at [the African diaspora’s] history and our journeys’ came to him quite quickly. Because of the relatively short time he had to design it – some Chelsea gardens are planned for up to two years – he chose to channel his interest in how we experience time by placing six of his ‘Invisible Men’ statues around the garden. First seen at London’s Somerset House in 2016 before they were installed at venues such as Yorkshire Sculpture Park and San Francisco’s Civic Centre Plaza, Ové describes the statues as ‘sculpted in the past but forged in the future’. Softened somewhat by the greenery, the men of graphite are akin to protectors of the flowers among which they stand tall.

Uniting Africa, Caribbean and the UK in one (admittedly not huge) space might sound a task, but the experience of moving from one area of the garden to the next is seamless. More importantly, Ové’s decision to bring the three together invites new considerations of the histories that bind them.

According to the artist, ‘How ‘Britain presents itself in that moment, which was totally funded by slavery’, is the focus of the final section. He is also keen that we take the long view of the climate crisis by considering how Antillean land was scarred by men with one word in mind: profit. In an intelligent nod to histories of biological classification and colonial expansion, dotted among the garden are little cards. They categorise people such as Hugh Duncan Baillie, who was compensated by the British government for the loss of 1,783 enslaved people after slavery was abolished, as ‘Genus: Investor’.

Abeba Esse has been a collaborative affair. Ové’s research partner Gloria Daniel, founder of TTeach (Transatlantic Trafficked Enslaved African Corrective Historical) plaques, helped him piece together some of the stories of the ‘investors’ he names. He co-designed the garden with Gold Medal-winning landscape architect Dave Green, who he credits as having ‘been very imaginative in helping us get to where we need to get to, creating a narrative through planting.’ For his part, Green salutes Ové’s creative spark and says their partnership encouraged him to think of new ways of communicating through planting.

Ové, too, has thought about how Abeba Esse might speak to visitors. ‘The garden puts us in front of very well-heeled people who would normally, probably, ignore this narrative,’ he says. ‘But the thing about the garden [as a space] is that it’s enticing. Sometimes, if people see at a distance pain, suffering and protest, they are put off. They put up their guard. But there’s something very interesting about how you lure people into a situation through beauty, and then you’re able to unfold a very delicate and disturbing story within it.’