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Titled Father, this work (above) may have been inspired by a baju (Malay costume) the artist's father once owned.

An untitled work, a vessel from the potter's private collection.

Iskandar, who this week conceived of a new collection, possibly based on his favourite songs by The Beatles and Bing Slamet.

Campus green.

The reluctant artist whose works you can use

Two major shows - one at NGS and the other at NIE - offer a comprehensive survey of master potter Iskandar Jalil's work in the last five decades; but for all the accolades heaped on him, the Cultural Medallion recipient sees himself as primarily a potter, not an artist.
02/09/2016 - 05:50

FANS and academics alike fawn over Iskandar Jalil's creations the way they would a painting by a revered artist, but the one who would disagree with all this praise is the master potter himself.

He resents the "ceramic artist" label that has been foisted on him. Speaking at the media preview for his exhibition, "Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels)" at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), he added: "I'm only interested in pottery, not ceramic art. 'Ceramic artists' - they do some pottery which is distorted and then they call it 'art'. But that's not pottery. I want my works to be known for their functionality as well."

Perhaps it is his age (76) and the awareness that he is living on borrowed time - he was diagnosed with Stage Four prostrate cancer in early 2014 - that spurred his candid comments about the way his exhibition was put together at the NGS. Without mincing his words, but yet gently, he gave vent to his displeasure about the exhibition's "arty" slant.

The show, curated by NGS's senior curator Seng Yu Jin and assistant curator Syed Mohammad Hafiz, features nearly 180 objects made over his five-decade career. In that time, Iskandar has sought to distinguish himself from contemporary artists who have neither mastered the basics nor cut their teeth through years in apprenticeship.

Iskandar, who received an honorary doctorate from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in July, said he hews close to the traditions of functional pottery in Japan, Scandinavia and the UK; his philosophy is that if you can't sell it, you should still at least be able to use it in the kitchen or garden.

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He first came to pottery in the 1960s, at the former Teachers' Training College (now the National Institute of Education or NIE). He went to Japan in 1972 on a Colombo Plan scholarship. It was there that he developed a deep respect for Japanese craftsmanship and also culture in general; he has been back to Japan almost every year since. He was conferred Japan's Order of the Rising Sun last year, becoming the first Singapore artist to receive it.

He is proud of the time when, during his apprenticeship in Japan, he had to make 100 cups a day. "This is the artisan's way ... you follow your elders in your internship. I wish Singapore education would go back a bit because there's too much emphasis on grades, and we need to be taught humility and dedication."

He reveals in the catalogue for the NIE exhibition that his Japanese sensei conferred on him "Master Potter" status only in the year 2000: "Just to get the basics right takes four to six years ... It takes about 20 years to be a decent potter and at least 30 years to be a master potter."

Asked about his apparent displeasure with the way his NGS exhibition was curated, he said he felt that he wasn't consulted closely enough; a trip that the museum's representatives took with him to Nagoya had been "too haphazard, too much and too fast". NGS's curators clarified later that Iskandar had helped them mainly with their research and loan of artworks for the exhibition, and that he had been very forthcoming in his interview with art historian TK Sabapathy for the exhibition catalogue.

Senior curator Mr Seng said: "Through these materials, we could understand his thought processes, and establish our curatorial direction, which was (to highlight) the importance of the ceramics medium in our local fine-art history."

Iskandar's mood lifted noticeably at the end of the media preview, as he shared details about his work. His inner rebellious streak came through in the work titled Alamak, Netball Again, which was inspired by a disagreement he had with the principal of the school where he was teaching. There, he was chief gardener and sports secretary - and tasked to lead the school netball team to victory as well.

He also talked about how he had come up with "Iskandar Blue" in Stockholm. He had pointed out to fellow potters in Konstfack that he wasn't seeing any blue in their pottery work, despite the predominance of the colour in the landscape of their country.

After his show at the Japan Creative Centre last year, the master potter had declared he was done with solo exhibitions - but it didn't stop him from conceptualising, just this week, a new collection based on his favourite songs by The Beatles and Bing Slamet (an Indonesian singer in the mid-1990s). "There is a possibility - if I'm healthy again," he said.

He is feistier than his silver-haired, slender figure belies. He has already outlived the prognosis the doctor gave him two years ago, so there could well be another solo show from this Cultural Medallion winner, Singapore's own pioneer potter.

Of fluidity and movement

WHILE Iskandar Jalil's main criticism of the National Gallery Singapore's exhibition of his works was too "arty", it's hard to escape the sheer artistry that makes the master potter's bowls stand out the way they do. Yes, they are everyday pots and bowls, but their shape, form and colours - there is no other word to describe them but "art".

There are about 180 pieces by Iskandar on display, and the museum painstakingly borrowed them from public institutions and private collectors. For the exhibition, the museum used the "island concept" showcasing the six different sections in organic-shaped islands in the gallery space. The idea reflects fluidity and movement, and also the cultural exchange that took place when Iskandar travelled to other countries to learn or exhibit. Iskandar had railed against the concrete confines and the cold, urban feel of the museum, but at least the round islands help to soften look and feel of the gallery.

In Concourse Gallery 2, the museum invited contemporary artist Gerald Leow to execute his idea of home. Leow conceived of a metal structure, which is like a framework of a Malay house - inspired by Iskandar's deep interest in architecture. Many of the works there are from Iskandar's private collection, such as the two pieces depicting his son and daughter, Edzra and Elena.

  • Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels) is on at National Gallery Singapore, Ngee Ann Kongsi Gallery and Concourse Gallery 2, until Feb 28, 2017. Open 10am-7pm (Sun-Thu, Public Holidays); and 10am-10pm (Fri-Sat, Eve of Public Holidays). Admission rates apply

This is worth your time

ALTHOUGH it is a long way out to western Singapore to get to the National Institute of Education (NIE) campus, this exhibition is worth the time - especially as it shows the more technical aspects of Iskandar Jalil's clays and pottery-making. Of note is the "Study of Local Clays" - which tells you where the clays came from in Singapore and how they look like when fired at different temperatures. This, and his samples of different clays - showing off their colours and textures - is where you appreciate that pottery isn't just art, but a science as well. As he put it: "Pottery is craft work with a scientific background."

The exhibition has 32 works, mostly acquired recently by NIE for its collection, and they illustrate the forms and variety of glazes or finished textures the works can take. Four aspects of Iskandar's artistic nature and career are highlighted: discipline and freedom, roots and identity, beauty and imperfection and the global craftsman.

There is also a video segment, featuring him and his motorcycle, which he calls his second wife. He has three passions or "jobs" in his life: the first is preparing clay, the second is the motorcycle and the third, his garden and plants. Befittingly, his works are displayed against a leafy background; the NIE's Art Gallery has a glass-covered front that looks out to the campus green.

Beyond this exhibition, which is on for just a month, the institute is also 3D-scanning the potter's works to make them available on digital platforms in the future, says Paul Lincoln, assistant head of NIE's Visual and Performing Arts department.

  • Dr Iskandar Jalil: A Master Potter's Philosophy & Process is on at The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education, 1 Nanyang Walk until Sept 16; Mon-Fri,10.30am-5.30pm