At National Gallery Singapore

Artistic reflection

Iskandar Jalil’s signature “Iskandar Blue” glaze, as seen in the work That’s The Way Ah-ha, Ah-ha, I Like It (left), is inspired by the intense blue waters of Scandinavia.
Iskandar Jalil’s signature “Iskandar Blue” glaze, as seen in the work That’s The Way Ah-ha, Ah-ha, I Like It (left), is inspired by the intense blue waters of Scandinavia.

Five things one learns about master potter Iskandar Jalil from the National Gallery show

1 He is a globetrotter

He travels widely and off the beaten path and his trips overseas have often inspired his works and marked milestones in his artistic career.

For example, he went to India to study textile weaving and spinning on a Colombo Plan scholarship in 1966 and his observations of his time there led to a set of figurative works for his first solo exhibition, held at the seminal Alpha Gallery in 1984.


Iskandar Jalil’s signature “Iskandar Blue” glaze, as seen in the work That’s The Way Ah-ha, Ah-ha, I Like It (above), is inspired by the intense blue waters of Scandinavia.

He also travelled to Japan in 1972 on a Colombo Plan scholarship to study ceramics engineering at the Pottery Design and Technical Centre in Tajimi City, and his sense of aesthetics is deeply influenced by the Japanese concepts of shibui - simple, unobtrusive beauty - and wabi sabi - beauty in transience and imperfection.

On another occasion, a trip to Scandinavia left him with such a deep impression of its intense blue waters that he developed his signature "Iskandar Blue" glaze.



Iskandar’s untitled sculptural work that is part of his Wheel Of Fortune Series.

2 He has a special affinity with motorcycles

He lives and breathes his craft, so his works tend to have an element of biography in them. His love for bike-riding is one such example.

He has been a motorcycle owner since the age of 18 and he was the winner of motorcycle rallies here in the 1960s. He also travels around Singapore on his motorbike to collect clay for his ceramics.

The motorcycle motif recurs in his body of work as wheel-shaped sculptures. His bike plate, which he has kept through the years, is also inscribed on the rear of a piece he modelled after a tongkang, a type of South-east Asian boat.


3 He imbues his work with observations on society and politics

He tends to work intuitively and things that weigh on his heart and mind may take form as he shapes the clay.

An example is the porcelain work, Ay-Yah Stop At Three Only, from 1988, which references the Government's push in 1987 to encourage families to have three or more children if they can afford it; this, after fertility levels fell significantly with the campaign in the 1970s to have families stop at two children.

Another example is his ceramic work modelled after the kentongan (above), a slit gong used in kampungs here to call the villagers together for meetings.

With the disappearance of kampungs in Singapore, such instruments have faded away from sight and use.


4 He enjoys calligraphy

He is an avid journal keeper who fills his sketch books with his stylish penmanship, and his love for calligraphy extends to his pots.

He sometimes covers the surface of his pots and vessels with recitations from the Quran in Jawi script (above) using a calligraphy brush.

Occasionally, he also writes in English on his pots.


5 He embraces serendipitous imperfections

He is a perfectionist and throws away his works when they are not up to scratch, but he keeps pieces that are beautifully imperfect when they arise from chance and accident.

An example is a large striated vessel (above) that he accidentally bumped his elbow into while the clay was still wet, resulting in the vessel's unique asymmetrical form. The vessel is in his collection and before it was exhibited, it stood in the living room of his home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Artistic reflection'. Print Edition | Subscribe