The figures are languid and peaceful. They gaze out of the frame placidly, seemingly deep in contemplation.
What are these figures — all of whom are female — thinking? Are they pondering the intersectionality of race and gender? Musing over the dark history of colonialism? Reflecting on economic justice or iniquities in class?
Or maybe they’re just resting.
In Hana Yilma Godine’s solo show “Spaces Within Space” at Gallery 263 in Cambridge, the significance of Godine’s figures is left completely (and refreshingly) to the interpretation of the viewer. Harkening back to an earlier time in art history when painting was largely an observational exercise rather than social commentary, the dozen or so handsome large-scale paintings include both figures and a group of intimate landscapes painted in a soft palette of lilacs, greens, browns and yellows. The paintings exude both a sense of tranquility and solid earthiness, managing to feel both anticipatory and reflective.
The work, Godine says, is about “how people experience different ways of being around the world.”
Godine grew up in Ethiopia. She attended Addis Ababa University’s Alle School of Fine Arts and Design where she studied painting and drawing, before spending a period in Spain where she studied painting and print-making. In 2012, she moved to the United States, settling in Columbus, Ohio, before pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting at Boston University.
“I experienced different cultures and languages while I was in Addis Ababa,” she says. “And then I got the chance for a student exchange program to go to Spain. That was a huge shift for me, observing another way of living, and then coming to the United States… having all these different ways of living, different ways of thinking kind of gave me a way to create different layers.”
Her paintings reflect an array of globalized influences ranging from French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne to Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu to Tadesse Mesfin, an Ethiopian painter who was one of Godine’s professors. A stint teaching drawing at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture at Addis Ababa University may have also influenced the architectural feel of some of her paintings. She uses oil, acrylic paint, charcoal, gesso, Ethiopian fabric and old magazines to create a transparent layering suggestive of the passage of time.
In “Spaces within Space No. 7” (2019), we see three seated women, one layered on top of the other. The layering suggests these women do not exist together in time and space but are rather a montage of times and places. Beneath the seated figures we glimpse images of an Ethiopian magazine written in the Amharic language. We cannot be sure of the subject matter, but we understand that the articles most likely pertain to the daily concerns of life in Godine’s home country.
“I brought them from Ethiopia,” says Godine of the magazines. “And most of them are related with history or education… I guess the magazines have multiple functions. It suggests embedded history. Sometimes I use it as visual language to create texture or tone or transparency."
In “No. 7,” Godine extends the frame of the painting beyond the usual rectangular bounds to include a portion of canvas that is stretched using visible threads, in the manner of the edges of a trampoline. It is a way of stretching canvas that she says is a familiar one in her native Ethiopia. One of the figure’s hands rests on this portion of appended canvas. Another canvas is layered across the figure. Both devices provide a sense of accumulated cultural experience.
In “Spaces within Space No. 8” (2018), a woman sits on a couch in what appears to be a living room where we glimpse bookshelves and a vase. We also see exterior scenes, buildings and windows which almost appear to be a reflection from a window. The shape of a building, drawn with charcoal, both underlies and completes the figure. Again, we have a feeling of the passage of time, and the accumulation of actual physical space.
“I was really interested in how time exists in film and the shift from image to image, and again, this different perspective and different spaces that I wanted to have in one painting,” says Godine. “I used the exterior space and the interior space from the photos that I took in the past while I was in Columbus or here in Boston.”
Godine enjoys drawing, working the canvas until the original drawing gets obscured, then allowing her process to reveal the original drawing at some later point in time. The work “truly rewards deep looking,” according to artist and art educator Allison Gray, who serves as communications director at Gallery 263. But Godine’s layering of space is an organic process rather than a deliberate narrative tool. Her work is a simple meditation on life today, as we move about in a myriad of interconnected worlds both here and there, near and far, virtual and real, creating our own space within spaces.
“Spaces Within Space” is on view at Gallery 263 through Feb. 8. A reception will be held Friday, Jan. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m. An artist talk will be held Feb. 1 at 2 p.m.