Pottery master: Iskandar holds show at 80

Singapore master potter, who has a new exhibition, goes to his studio nearly every day - by motorbike or on foot

Master potter Iskandar Jalil, who stresses the importance of discipline and understanding one's material, says he will continue his craft as long as he is strong enough to do the work. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

The world may be in the throes of a pandemic, but for Singaporean master potter Iskandar Jalil, the art-making carries on.

He turns 81 next week, but still rides a motorbike to his studio in Temasek Polytechnic nearly every day. Last week, he opened a solo exhibition of his newest works.

Awakening, the title of the show at Ion Art Gallery, opened on Christmas Day with more than 80 works mostly from the past two years. It is organised by Tembusu Art Gallery and curated by independent curator Syed Muhd Hafiz.

Among the works are Let The Sleeping Dogs Lie, a 2.8m-long, 150kg series of sinuous forms mounted on Merbau wood; and Where Is My Kampong?, a stoneware vessel bearing the names of old kampungs and displayed along with some seemingly broken fragments.

There is also Dormitory, a response to the spread of Covid-19 in the accommodation of migrant workers here; and Little Dragon, which incorporates driftwood that he picked up on New Zealand's coast a decade ago.

Iskandar's studio lies on the edge of Temasek Polytechnic, where he worked till his retirement in 1999. The Cultural Medallion recipient does not teach much anymore, although he has been grooming several adult disciples.

When this reporter meets him at his studio, he is standing outside the entrance, busy handling wet clay in a basin.

"I am reclaiming rejected pots," he says. "Pots that are not good, we reject them and put them in water. The pots will disintegrate and, tomorrow morning, I will get my clay again."

The artist, who stresses the importance of discipline and properly understanding one's material, goes to his studio nearly every day. He gets there on his Yamaha motorbike or by taking a 1½-hour walk from his home in Kembangan. He often stays for the whole day, sometimes till late.

"Firing takes two days, one night. It's tiring, you miss your sleep," says Iskandar, who uses a gas-fired kiln to fire his clay works because the electric ones are "very dull".

"With an electric kiln, you get what you expect. If you have cobalt oxide, it gives you blue. If you use gas, the blue will have certain nuances, changes, differences, that's the beauty of it," adds the former mathematics and science teacher, who makes his own colours.

The airy studio, filled with ceramic pieces, has several signs on the wall. "Make this workshop your home", reads one. "Poor & shoddy work will be thrown into the clay bin prior to firing", warns another.

Iskandar's works reflect the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection.

"A perfect pot is very easy to make. But to get it imperfect and good to the eye, that's very rare. There is imperfection when you want to make something perfectly round, but something happens - the wheel spins too fast or you put your hand like that and it caves in."

  • VIEW IT / AWAKENING

    WHERE: Ion Art Gallery, Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Level 4

    WHEN: Till Jan 3, from 10am to 10pm daily

    INFO: Go to tembusu-art.com.sg. Most of the works are for sale and range from about $400 to $16,000. They are sold out.

    ADMISSION: Free

He wears a blue T-shirt with the words Mt Fuji on them. He has a deep affection for Japan, where he studied ceramics on a Colombo Plan scholarship and fell in love with the craft.

He speaks of his admiration for ceramic artists in Japanese villages, such as the late Shoji Hamada, a major figure of the mingei folk craft movement of the early 1900s.

At the potter's wheel, the ease of Iskandar's deft movements reflects decades of experience. He dips his fingers into blue pigment and colours the clay with it. Later, after the round vessel has taken shape, he puts his hands in and widens its lips, like a smile.

"I do what the clay can do for me - not what I think I should do," says the artist, whose palms are smooth from years of clay-making.

He recalls that during his teaching days, he would hurl students' works off the third-floor parapet when they were not up to standard. Some were "too perfect", others failed to respect the material they were using.

"You talk to them, they will listen, but they forget. Punish them that way and they'll remember that till they grow old."

The title of the current exhibition, originally slated to run in August, is Awakening. "It dawned on me that I'm no longer young," says the prostate cancer survivor.

For now, the work goes on.

"A potter will never stop. He'll continue on and on and on... as long as my legs can carry me on the walk from my home to my studio, as long as my hands are strong and can do the work."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2020, with the headline Pottery master: Iskandar holds show at 80 . Subscribe