An Act of Faith
The obsessive rendering of miniature squares serves as Paul Nickson Atia’s central motif in his latest solo exhibition entitled Form(s) of Prayer(s) at Rissim Contemporary in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur from December 19, 2019 until January 9, 2020.
Executed in Chinese ink with fine paintbrushes or tree twigs on large unprimed canvas, his subject matter and preferred paraphernalia unravel personal narratives that reflect his cerebral pursuits.
Expanding from a body of work called Obsesi that was showcased in his first solo – Jari Berlari: Tlinjuk Bi’koduh, a process-oriented presentation that featured spontaneous sketches and drawings at Rumah Lukis, Kuala Lumpur in 2018 – Form(s) of Prayer(s) pays homage to the act of orison through a series of 10 large-scale paintings.
In an artwork titled Obsession: Reformation, there are approximately 36,000 cubes measuring a square centimetre each that covers the entire canvas surface, which measures 244cm by 152cm. Representing a prayer, each monochromatic square is marked in varying intensity that mirrors his emotional state of being at the time.
Stepping back to see the big picture, one is presented with a barrage of grids and patterns. Devoid of any specific imagery, only visions of chants, prayers or zikir are depicted in fluctuating gradients.
Nonbelievers in search of meaning may ask: can we see God? And those of us with faith, trust that the Almighty is with us.
“The Obsession series is like a formation of a new faith and a reaffirmation of faith,” says Atia.
“I am interested in the idea of Divinity, particularly the history of the three main monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, along with Buddhism and Hinduism. Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is a good reference point.”
Akin to the Islamic Tasbih and the Roman Catholic Rosary beads, Atia’s miniature squares can be perceived as a device used to keep count of his recited prayers. Or little boxes that contain his mood and spirit of the day.
Obsession: O, Perpetual – a colossal work that measures 152cm by 426cm – is the largest work in this series. Executed in triptych format, the conceptual framework of presenting an artwork in three panels is significant.
Historically, paintings from the 15th and 16th century by Netherlandish artists with religious context were presented in three panels and was referred to as “paintings with doors”.[i]
Scholars have noted the format’s practical functions as altarpieces and made “tacit acceptance that the format was symbolic of the Trinity.”[ii]
For Atia, Obsession: O, Perpetual provides space for contemplation within the realms of prayer. A blank rectangular shape is placed perpendicular in the centre making it a focus for devotion and contemplative prayer.
Line of symmetry
In Obsession: Cerebration I, II and III, Atia introduces vertical and horizontal lines at the lower part of the canvas in addition to the recurring miniature squares that occupy the upper section.
“This method of demarcation indicates openings or ventilation blocks,” explains Atia.
Equipped with architectural knowledge, Atia incorporates certain elements in his work to achieve the desired aesthetics. Admiring the work of renowned architect, Peter Zumthor, Atia appreciates his minimalist and atmospheric approach in designing a building.
Atia works on butter paper as part of his artistic process – a method commonly practiced when employing manual drafting technique – and scribbles inscriptions on the reverse of his canvas as a way of note-making.
“I apply the rule of thirds in my composition so that in an artwork, viewers are able to get a sense of space,” explains Atia.
In Cerebration II, the perpendicular lines on the lower section of the canvas are illustrated using tree twigs that Atia collected from his family’s orchard in his hometown Bau, a gold mining town in Kuching, Sarawak.
“Deriving from the Syzygium genus plant, the canes are used by my family to build the traditional ‘A’ frame structure for runner beans. I have been gathering the excess twigs to be used in my work for the past five years,” says Atia.
The raw treatment of the perpendicular lines acclimatizing with the markings of the tree twigs inadvertently suggests an image of a wooden cage.
As Atia progresses from one Cerebration to the next, his broad linear grids have become more refined. What we see in Obsession: Affirmation; Obsession: Reaffirmation; and Obsession: Binary offer an indication of a reactive approach.
Relating his impelling force of the will with “the running scene” from the classic American film Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks, Atia finds himself in an identical situation as Gump.
In the movie, Gump began to run across America for three years and two months only stopping for food, sleep and the lavatory. When journalists asked him: “Why are you doing this?” Gump simply replied: “I just felt like running.”
Similarly, there is no coherent answer for “why is Atia obsessively painting tiny squares?” An unknown forceful urge within compels him to. And in so doing, relieves a sense of euphoria.
“I experience a kind of metaphysical growth when working on this series. Each square may be exactly the same size repeated in the same manner, but every one of them is different. In my mind, subconsciously, I want to create patterns,” says Atia.
Originating from the Bidayuh community of Borneo, Atia’s cultural background exposes him to the utilitarian and agrarian crafts such as basketry and tikar kelasah, a traditional Bidayuh mat weaving using rattan and tree bark.
“Bidayuh’s craftsmanship is minimalist in style. Even our traditional costume, which mainly uses black, red, white and yellow colour is less intricate as compared with the Iban’s,” explains Atia.
Perhaps Atia’s subconscious motive is a visual memory of his childhood. His agricultural family cultivates a paddy-field and harvests rice for their consumption. Tikar kelasah is often used by the community during the drying process of the rice crop.
These “patterns” that Atia yearns to create unwittingly appear in Obsession: Facilitation and Obsession: O, Perpetual.
In Obsession: Facilitation, the vertical rectangular format measuring 180cm by 60cm is divided equally in three parts. The miniature boxes in variable intensity are framed by three blank squares aligned precisely in the centre of the composition. These blank spaces allow viewers a moment of quiet introspection.
The obsessive execution of miniature squares is a form of prayer for Paul and so is the act of looking at them. For me, a wheel of emotions is activated with a sense of self-reflection from Atia’s visual penance.
[i] “Opening Doors: The Early Netherlandish Triptych Reinterpreted”, Lynn F. Jacobs, Penn State Press, 2012, page 1.