Hana Yilma Godine's 'A Brush in the Universe' Transcends Time and Place

Jahunyia Healis, Testudio, February 19, 2024

From her studio in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, painter Hana Yilma Godine spoke with me about her latest solo show in New York City, currently on view at two locations: The Fridman Gallery on the Bowery and the Rachel Uffner Gallery on the Lower East Side. This exhibition, titled A Brush in the Universe, marks the artist's second collaboration with these galleries. The two venues previously worked together to present Godine's A Hair Salon in Addis Ababa in 2022.


Born and raised in the cultural melting pot that is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, painter Hana Yilma Godine spent her formative years amidst a backdrop of diverse languages, religions, and artistic traditions in the vibrant capital city.


After studying sculpture, drawing, and painting through summer classes at Abyssinia School of Fine Art, Godine continued to explore her passion for painting at Ale Fine Art School in Ethiopia, eventually earning her MFA at Boston University in 2020. Along with classes in painting, silkscreen, and a visual poem book class, Godine cites the guidance of Josephine Halverson, the Chair of Graduate Studies in Painting, as a major source of inspiration during that time. In 2023, Godine immersed herself in the vibrant artistic atmosphere of Beacon, NY, participating in the Fridman Gallery's artist residency. "It was a very different experience,” she told me, “—a different time and place, meeting new people, and the weather, the landscape, the nature—all those elements functioned in the paintings that I was creating there, and in the museums that I was visiting."


Research is an integral part of Godine’s creative process, as evident in her latest slate of paintings.The artworks radiate an other worldly and utopian quality, inviting viewers to envision a harmonious existence with the universe rather than in opposition to it. This thematic exploration, a hallmark of Godine's body of work, reflects her fascination with navigating the realms of the spiritual, physical, and universal. She aptly describes this collection as an "investigation of the body and the universe."


A Brush in the Universe, weaves a moving feminist narrative that transcends time and place. When I asked if she personally considers her work to be feminist, Godine responded, “I don't categorize my paintings in one style because I experiment with different styles and am open to new [ideas]…I take ideas from different styles and movements– from feminism to minimalism. Even if I don't do it intentionally, at some point, I will see them appearing in the work.”


Godine taps into the artistic heritage of her culture through her use of flattened perspective– reminiscent of medieval Ethiopian iconography, which is juxtaposed against her own contemporary style. When asked whether her choice in fusing contemporary and historic art styles was deliberate, Godine said, “I don't intentionally try to balance them… sometimes, depending on the idea for each canvas, I might do more research on one specific historical moment or contemporary moment because they function together."


Most of the works utilize a combination of oil paint and fabric on canvas. The fabric is adorned with bold prints featuring florals, animals, landscapes, and images of the natural world. The carefully arranged textiles are surrounded by powerful brushstrokes. The textiles used in the compositions hold cultural significance, traditionally bought at local markets and used by Ethiopian women to craft affordable dresses.


The remainder of the works are painted on plastic which is reflective of her eagerness to test different mediums. “The experiment with plastic is to see how it's connected with water and glass and to see the connection they have as a substance.”


The figures in Godine’s work are central to the compositions, though none of them are modeled after individual people and are instead meant to be universal representations of human beings. The figures in the paintings feel familiar yet representative of a larger collective experience. The use of animal motifs is also prominent throughout the show, yet another way to infuse the work with a connection to the natural world.— The eagle, for example, appears in multiple pieces. “It’s used to manifest the woman's spirit through the eagle spirit,” Godine tells me. “to discover her identity in the creation system.” In many cultures eagles represent strength, resilience, and freedom. She believes that freedom is a key theme of the work.


When asked if she feels that there is a throughline between her last solo show and this one, Godine said, “I think whenever I go from canvas to canvas or especially from show to show, I’m looking for new ideas and new experimentations. Those are the kind of ideas that excite me in my studio practice.If it is something that I have happening in my life for a certain time, it might be my appearing and disappearing from my work. I am more interested in and I usually invest more of my time on what I researched.”


One painting in the show that feels particularly evocative is Single Painting #8, which features a woman sitting on a bed holding a bouquet that blooms into a gun, while a city is visible through a window in the background. Godine described the painting to me as “a conversation between a woman and a cityscape…an experimentation with different materials. I'm more interested in the manifestation of a woman's body with a specific substance that is suggested in her dress.”


The piece can be interpreted as a commentary on the duality of womanhood— the necessity to embody both softness and strength, to have the ability to defend oneself while preserving a delicate nature, and how empowerment can be derived from navigating this tension.


The show’s press release emphasizes how Godine's work seeks to create a "parallel dimension where women are safe from violence and free to express their power, beauty, and womanhood independent of social and political restrictions." This subject matter feels particularly timely, given the escalating global trends of violence against women and the rise of anti-feminist sentiment. A Brush in the Universe not only successfully creates this “parallel dimension,” but it opens the door for conversations around this reality, while offering a much-needed sense of comfort and inspiration.