Hana Yilma Godine: A Brush in the Universe

Annabel Keenan, The Brooklyn Rail, February 13, 2024

In a refreshing display of collaboration, two galleries across the Lower East Side are staging a joint solo show of Ethiopian artist Hana Yilma Godine. Spread across Fridman Gallery and Rachel Uffner Gallery, A Brush in the Universe features new and recent mixed-media paintings of still lifes and otherworldly women inspired by mythology, Ethiopian history, and religious iconography. Using oil and acrylic paint, as well as textiles with colorful, bold patterns and textures, Godine’s work is visually rich in detail and typically has a flat perspective, not unlike the biblical imagery she sometimes uses for inspiration. The show marks the second time the two galleries have exhibited Godine together. A ten-minute walk, the trip from one space to the other becomes a part of the exhibition as visitors navigate the vibrant streets of downtown Manhattan. Elements of one show, such as repeated motifs and similar patterns, appear in both spaces, resulting in a continuous conversation across the two galleries.


Inspired by the artist’s interest in representations of women in Ethiopian art, mythology, and history, as well as their role in the nation’s patriarchal society, Godine creates a realm in which female bodies can exist freely, embracing their identities, strength, and beauty. The women in the show are larger-than-life. Some bear visible faces, staring directly at the viewer with inscrutable expressions. Other visages are obscured, covered by patches of paint or patterned fabric. In many figures, Godine blends organic elements like plants and shapes resembling animal horns, adding to their divine and mythical auras. Though the exhibition text notes the specific women Godine references, such as the mythological heroine Andromeda and the Ethiopian empress Queen Zauditu, the artist allows for broad interpretations and titles the work with little, if any, context.

At Rachel Uffner is Single Painting #10 (2022), which depicts a woman lying on a bed of clouds, her cheetah-print stilettos gently piercing the puffy surface. Ethereal and weightless, she floats in the blue sky. On her head and across parts of her body, Godine has used a diaphanous, floral fabric that spills beyond the boundary of the canvas and onto the gallery floor. This cloudy backdrop is seen again in another work in the gallery, Single Painting #12 (2022), in which a female figure with elegant, elongated limbs sits atop the earth in front of a bright blue sky. Puffy white clouds and a soaring eagle appear behind her, as does a gilded floral chair that floats in space. Her body is covered in vibrant patterns, including animal print and flowers, and a feathery mask covers her face. She is both earthly and otherworldly, human and non-human. Her throne-like chair and hints of a headdress suggest she is royal, while her position on top of the world implies something more god-like. What is clear is that she is an image of power and strength with authority over man and nature.
The earth appears again at Fridman in Single Painting #1 (2022), this time on a table in front of a seated woman. At first glance, she appears to be holding a pen and gazing sternly at the planet. Closer inspection reveals she is in fact filing her nails with a focused expression. Bottles of nail polish, including one that resembles another tiny globe, are scattered on the table—tools of self-care. In the background, Godine has used various colorful advertisements and images from newspaper, many alluding to travel. She has also prominently featured a painting of female lions next to the seated figure, blurring logic as one lioness gingerly steps out of the field of the painting and onto the table. The figure and animals seem to be in harmony, as if there is a mutual understanding of respect and care.
Similar earthly elements, as well as hybrid human-animal-plant forms appear throughout the show. In Single Painting #14 (2022) at Rachel Uffner, a woman floats in a blue background, seemingly weightless. In place of her hands and feet are vibrant green leaves, which also appear on her face. Horns of flowers and leaves project from the sides of her head and a long, dramatic gold strip of fabric frames her face and extends behind her, an image that recalls the halos seen in Christian iconography. Three birds in flight appear slightly behind the figure, two of which fight over a fish. Godine has painted the birds in a perspective that suggests the viewer is underneath them, looking up at their bellies as they fight for their meal. The female figure, by contrast, is seen straight on, as if she is hovering parallel to the ground directly above the viewer.
Apart from the occasional animals, nearly all the women are depicted alone. An outlier is Single Painting #16 (2023) at Fridman, an image of three women in long white dresses whose faces are covered in patterns reminiscent of regalia or ecclesiastic symbols. Leaves and flowers grow behind and above them, while additional leaves float in front. Their hands blend into the field of flowers, as if they are part of the natural world, as well. Nearby, flowers seem to cascade from the face in Single Painting #9 (2022), further suggesting the fluid boundaries between figure and the environment. In both works, Godine hints at creation, as if the women depicted are responsible for bringing nature to life, not unlike the figures seen watching over the globe and nurturing the flowers and animals around them.
Visually captivating and full of symbolism, Godine’s two-gallery presentation engages the viewer across the Lower East Side. Her innovative use of color, texture, and patterns is fresh and invigorating. If her mission was to create a new image of women in Ethiopian art, she certainly succeeded.