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How Master Potter Iskandar Jalil’s Works Elevate A Craft Into Art

He has always insisted his works are crafts, made to be used. A survey of Iskandar's career at National Gallery shows how they are art.

“A hundred cups a day. For one week, two weeks, four weeks. I had to make these cups, till the day the sensei finally placed his stamp on one. At first, I did not understand. Why did he stamp his seal on a cup that I made?” says 76-year-old master potter Iskandar Jalil, recalling his apprenticeship in Japan’s ceramics centre, Tajimi, in 1972.

He pauses, then continues: “I realised that was the sensei’s approval – that I had graduated from this form of pottery, and could move on to another form. This is what becoming an artisan is about.”

  • FUNCTIONAL BEAUTY Made to be used, Iskandar’s kitchenware injects art into daily life.

To Iskandar, Cultural Medallion recipient and Singapore’s most well-known ceramicist, the journey from novice to craftsman has been a lifelong affair. Unrelenting practice and mastery of techniques are but part of the story. His is a world of philosophies and convictions about the craft, embodied in what he calls the “ethical pot”.

In the first major survey of the potter’s work, held at the National Gallery Singapore, visitors can trace Iskandar’s journey through some 180 pieces of creations spanning a five-decade career. There are the functional pieces, imbued with a quiet balance of aesthetics and application. And there are works that reveal a whimsical, playful side. An archival section displaying Iskandar’s journals offers more insights.

SEEING THE POTTER THROUGH HIS POTS

Call him an “artist”, and he rejects it. Not one to mince his words, Iskandar points out: “If a teapot cannot pour water properly, or if a ceramic tile warps, what is its use? An artist may create works without function, but for a craftsman, function must come first.”

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Wayang Kulit, an intricate reinterpretation of the traditional Malay art form in ceramic sculpture. Collection of Singapore Changi Airport.

Many of his works – cups, bowls and pots – were clearly made to be used in daily life. In one section, everyday items from his home are on display within a contemporary interpretation of a Malay house: a hat stand improvised from a pot and a withered bush, a table made by Iskandar featuring slabs of clay from all over Singapore, cooking pots, and ceramic figurines symbolising his children. In this deliberately intimate setting, the idea of functional, beautiful crafts becomes far more personal and relevant.

As artist and teacher, he seeks to impart the hallmarks of a craftsman to his students – that of discipline, humility and respect. One of them was a young Royston Tan, who saw his pot flung out of the door by Iskandar. The reason: a failure to respect the material – Raku clay is rough in nature and Royston had chosen to smooth the pot.

“It is not about what I want to make,” says Iskandar. “It is what the clay wants me to say, and do. Thus from the pot, you can see the potter, his convictions and ethics.”

ACCIDENTAL BEAUTIES

Perched on a display island, there is a vessel with a distinctive silhouette – a sharp concave fold posing an interesting counterpoint to the vessel’s uniform shape. While making it, Iskandar had bumped his shoulder into the vessel. Rather than destroy the piece, he embraced its accidental beauty.

The role of Japanese aesthetics in Iskandar’s craft is seminal, a legacy of his apprenticeship in Tajimi. Wabi-sabi – the Japanese philosophy of accepting imperfect beauty and transience – permeates Iskandar’s works. His predilection for shibui, the Japanese aesthetic ideal based on the natural and subtle, gives rise to creations that are often simple yet complex. Seemingly simple elements are employed to create depth and intricacy: handles crafted from branches, and pieces of coarse rope and incised patterns highlighting textures of specific clays.

When wabi-sabi meets shibui, the result is often compelling and unexpected. Such as a teapot whose form is disrupted by an organic mass of clay, the result of an accident in the kiln. Or the use of materials that will degrade over time, such as untreated wood.

THE UNWILLING ARTIST/CRAFTSMAN

While the diversity of works, sourced from private, public and institutional collections, showcased at the exhibition is impressive, for Iskandar, the display counters the purpose of his craft, which he sees as a journey to produce ceramics for daily use. In his journal, he laments: “I feel uncomfortable to see my pots displayed on top of sideboards, display cupboard, instead of they been (sic) used for what I intended for. I get frustrated telling my collectors the time I spent solving the architectural and engineering problems making my teapots or … even mugs.”

Yet, despite his unwillingness, it is this master ceramicist’s aesthetics, beyond function, that have shaped and redefined the practice of pottery in Singapore and the region. Such an exhibition has been long in coming.

Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels) is on till Feb 28, 2017, National Gallery Singapore.

PHOTOS The Straits Times & National Gallery Singapore

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