Swansong of strength

Master potter Iskandar Jalil makes a comeback with experimental works in his new solo show

Potter Iskandar Jalil has made more than 80 ceramic pieces since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year.
Potter Iskandar Jalil has made more than 80 ceramic pieces since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He was finished with staging solo exhibitions, or so he thought.

Singapore's Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Jalil, 75, had announced in 2011 that his one-man show that year was his last. Age and weakening eyesight had compelled him to slow down.

But the artist has made an inadvertent comeback. More than 80 ceramic pieces, made since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, are now on show at the Japan Creative Centre.

The artist, who completed radiotherapy treatment earlier this year, looked spry when Life met him last week at the exhibition. He says with characteristic dry humour that the works carry the "cancer signature", but he did not deliberately produce the pieces for a curtain call.

Professing that he "will be making pots until the day I die", he had continued creating ceramic works after his diagnosis of cancer, albeit at a slower pace. Still, the number of finished works grew.

Then, an opportunity to hold a solo exhibition at the Japan Creative Centre came up for the artist who honed his craft in Japan in the 1970s and was recently conferred the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Japanese government. The award recognises his contributions to cultural exchange between Japan and Singapore.


    WHERE: Japan Creative Centre, 4 Nassim Road

    WHEN: Till Saturday, 10am to 6pm daily


The exhibition shows the potter experimenting freely with forms and means of expression in the sixth decade of his practice.

New to his oeuvre: fusing wooden handles to ceramic ware, which lend the works a Nordic touch. His usual style is to secure found branches to pots with string.

"This is more difficult," he says, "because you have to fit the wood to irregularly shaped clay. I had to learn woodworking. But aesthetically, it fits very well."

The wood comes from discarded crates he found near furniture stores such as Ikea. He cut the pallets to length on site and brought them back to his studio on his motorcycle.

Of the works that bear the potter's familiar marks - richly textured surfaces, blue and earthy brown glazes, and the use of found wood - their titles depart from his usual nomenclature to reference popular songs and literary works that remind him of his early life.

"In my last days, I start thinking, 'my time is very short, very precious', and the best, most beautiful things of my life are the early days. They remain very strongly in my mind."

He speaks of those halcyon days, of devouring his father's collection of fiction, watching films at open-air cinemas and growing up in Kampung Chantek in Bukit Timah, with vivid clarity.

Those memories resonate in pieces such as a two-sided vessel with contrasting surfaces named after the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, and a trio of three vessels that borrows its name from the comedic hit Tiga Abdul by iconic Malay film-maker P Ramlee.

Art writer Lindy Poh, 46, who edited Iskandar's exhibition essay, says: "What is so vital about his practice is just how vigorously hybrid it is - it is alive and responding to all kinds of stimuli and catalysts."

Iskandar emphasises that the works were not devised as representations of his memories.

"Once you preconceive the idea, it becomes a stress, so I just make. From there, the idea will come and I do what I think is suitable."

His approach embraces the spirit of making ethical pots, which was popularised by British potter Bernard Leach in the mid-1900s. The idea of the ethical pot, which shares the Japanese belief of michi, or "the way", strives towards making ceramics in an instinctive way such that the resulting vessel is not the deliberate projection of a concept but a natural and meaningful extension of the potter's philosophy and life.

Iskandar says he is still searching for his ideal "ethical pot" - a "good pot" that embodies his identity and values - but he is emphatic that this exhibition is his final solo show.

"There were a few times I collapsed in the studio because I was tired, working from morning till evening. The others had to use Epsom salts to revive me."

He adds: "But usually, that happens when I am enjoying the pieces that I am doing and I forget what I can do and what I cannot do."

His long-time gallerist Vera Ong, 57, says: "Pottery is the soul of Iskandar. Knowing him, he'll never stop."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline Potter Iskandar Jalil rebounds from cancer diagnosis. Subscribe