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Iskandar Jalil: On Eels, Architecture and Digital Interventions

Iskandar Jalil: On Eels, Architecture and Digital Interventions

Without a doubt, master potter Dr. Iskandar Jalil is a complex man.

Dr. Iskandar Jalil
Dr. Iskandar Jalil

He’s perhaps most well-remembered in recent times for his 2016 show at the National Gallery Singapore, Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels) which was billed as the first major survey of his career, drawing on close to 200 works dating back from the 1960s. The show was meant to convey his deep connection with clay and his belief that the material embodies the local identity and culture of the land it is from. As the National Gallery Singapore states, “he insisted on using clay from Southeast Asia and drew on a wide range of cultural sources to capture the character of the region.”

For over five decades before that, however, Iskandar Jalil has had a distinguished career spanning many different countries. Awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1988, he has the honour of being the first Singaporean artist to receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette bestowed by the Emperor of Japan in 2015.

A review of Iskandar’s body of work and practice throws up a fascinating array of information, interspersed with nuggets of duality and contradiction – he speaks just as easily of imparting notions of respect to his students, as he acknowledges anecdotes of flinging out his trainees’ substandard work. He’s exhibited in hallowed art institutions, while also emphasising the importance of craft practices and the pure functionality of his work. He was reported in 2014 as suffering from Stage 4 prostate cancer but has nonetheless remained active in the intervening years since.

Dr. Iskandar Jalil in his studio
The artist in his studio

The multi-faceted nature of Iskandar’s personality is underscored further with his recent leap into the digital realm, working with Artistic Director Natalie Hennedige, to present the glorious online exhibition, Life In A Cloud.

Even with this latest foray, our engagement with Iskandar turns out to be as nuanced as his finely-crafted sculptures. He is not personally on social media, and in his short Life In A Cloud video, says somewhat ruefully, “In my whole life, I only touch (the) computer or the internet I think 3 or 4 times. You learn from people, it’s ingrained in your mind and you have friends for life….Computer… no, nothing, it’s a machine.”

Nonetheless, in the spirit of a true Renaissance Man, Iskandar was game enough to take questions that we had invited followers of our social media channels to ask. And so dear readers, we are pleased to present some of Iskandar’s thoughts on the questions asked by you. Enjoy.

Have you any advice for aspiring potters who are new to the scene? In your view, what is the biggest lesson to remember?

First, ask: have you handled the material well? This is a lump of clay, so do what you can. How will you work it? Do what you want. How will you leave your mark on it? Those who are good at it, they feel it and they don’t ask me what to do. And I can see their natural ability in how they handle the clay. I don’t ask them to do specific (things). It has to come from within them, their expressions, and their finger marks.

Iskandar Jalil applies glaze to his work with a glaze sprayer – he blows into it in order to spray the glaze on.
Here, Iskandar applies glaze to his work with a glaze sprayer – he blows into it in order to spray the glaze on.

Can you share your experience with having exhibitions and working with galleries? Have you any tips for young artists? 

One must understand the function of the galleries. The galleries are there to make profits but also to help promote you. It is important to make sure that one’s works have integrity and quality. The quality will be reduced if the work is focused merely on pleasing the market. Internationally, there is a certain professionalism especially with galleries (run by) artist-owners. They have a greater sense of duty because they understand the craft and the arts and will groom you as an artist. Therefore, you as the artist have to be clear about what the situation in front of you is when working with galleries. You have to be the deciding factor, you have to decide.

Do you have any hopes and aspirations for the Singapore or regional pottery scene? 

We must have education. What is ‘bread and butter’? What is ‘art’? How can we speak about the subject and know the materials? This is the knowledge that must be shared, and (people should be) educated. Support (in the arts) is not just about buying pieces for display. You can promote the arts in many ways, for example by supporting more people to study the subject and to learn the craft. Where are the private pottery centres today? How many do we have? Do we have galleries with artist-owners? Do we have big-shot galleries here? I (myself) have given away a lot of art scholarships through my own efforts, to students who couldn’t afford an art education.

If you had not become a potter, what other lines of work do you think you might have been in? 

I was interested in architecture and wanted to study it. However, I eventually ended up becoming a teacher as I had to support my family members. This is life. (Nonetheless, I found) that there is always someone (out there to) look after you and be fair to you. I worked very hard to become a very dedicated teacher. Students who didn’t have enough to pay their school fees, I would help them out and paid for them, especially those who struggled. I love teaching and I love students. That is my weakness.

Could you share with us, the highest and lowest points you’ve experienced? 

I have more low points than high points. I appreciate what we are. When we first bought our house back then, it was dilapidated and when it rained, water would drip everywhere. The drain was not proper and at night, sometimes we would look for eels in it, for food. It was very difficult back then. That’s why I also understand students who need help, what they go through, and why we must help them. My highest point? Probably when I received my honorary doctorate in an outfit and a hat that was too big for me. Everyone kept asking me which university I studied at and I just had to keep telling them no, I wasn’t from any! [Laughs]


In these socially-distanced times, meet Dr. Iskandar Jalil online at Life in a Cloud. The website will be up and running till 8 August 2021.

All images in this story are courtesy of Kiat.

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