Bonding through Clay
Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Jalil builds bridges between cultures with the help of his pottery pieces that marry influences from Japan and South-east Asia.
BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTO ALECIA NEO
Iskandar Jalil has received several awards from the Japanese government for his contribution to the promotion of Japanese culture in Singapore.
tep into Iskandar Jalil’s home in the east of Singapore and it is easy to see that his craft is his life. Ceramic vessels of every shape and size line the walls and shelves, and sit on various table surfaces. There is even a pot that takes pride of place in the centre of his garden.
Iskandar Jalil with then Japanese Ambassador to Singapore Haruhisa Takeuchi (left) in 2015, when Iskandar received the Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Rosette) from Ambassador Takeuchi. The award, bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, recognises Iskandarʼs contributions, through pottery, in building cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and Singapore for over 40 years.
The Cultural Medallion recipient’s love affair with pottery started in 1972, when he received a Colombo Plan scholarship to study ceramics engineering at Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre in Japan. The scholarships were awarded by countries such as the United States and Japan to top students from less-developed Asian countries to support their economic and social development between the 1950s and 1980s.
This marked the start of his enduring ties with Japan, a country whose artistry, philosophy, discipline and culture continue to inspire him. His works, ranging from cups and bowls to vases and pots, reflect the marriage of Japanese discipline and his unique Singaporean and Southeast Asian identities. Using local clay to model everyday objects such as the tingkat (a tiered food container commonly found in Asia) or things that represent Malay culture, such as the keris (an asymmetrical dagger), his works often embody the notion of home in both material and form. At the same time, the Japanese aesthetic ideals of shibui and wabi sabi are reflected in the clean lines and simple forms of his vessels. Shibui means simple, unobstrusive beauty, while wabi sabi refers to the acceptance of beauty in transience and imperfection.
Now 77, Iskandar has also mentored young artists, both locally and regionally. He has taken over 200 Singaporean students to Japan since 1992 to nurture their interest in ceramics art and foster cultural exchange and mutual understanding between the two countries. Until 1999, he also taught at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute and, later, at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design. He continues to be involved in studio space Temasek Potters, where he works with a group of artists, including Japanese students, to hone their craft and exchange ideas about art and clay. In Singapore, he has also hosted visiting Japanese artists, who take back with them an understanding of Singaporean culture and society, as well as the nuances of South-east Asian art, the motifs and the rendering techniques, which are signatures of Iskandar’s pottery.
Since 2004, the master potter has worked with Singapore humanitarian organisation Mercy Relief on the Singa Kiln Project in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The project aims to provide Khmer youth with pottery and weaving skills to enable them to have a sustainable livelihood that would better their lives. Iskandar also travels regularly to Siem Reap to share his experience with young and aspiring Khmer potters.
“[Japanese culture and philosophy] has influenced the way I do my work, more than my work itself. Japanese culture has taught me how to be focused and disciplined. For instance, I learnt to set a goal at the start of the day, and to reach it before I go home, even if it means working late into the night. Other aspects I learnt are respect for my elders, the importance of passion in what you do, and loyalty, especially to the country. ”
Iskandar Jalil, master potter
1. You have a passion for Japanese culture and philosophy. How did your affinity with Japan come about?
I was awarded the Colombo Plan scholarship to Japan in 1972, which marked the start of my love affair with the country. For a year, I studied pottery in Tajimi and, by extension, had a glimpse into what the Japanese call their “way of life”. The school was surrounded by vegetable gardens, farms and typical old Japanese houses. I would speak to the farmers on the way home, and get a cup of tea – I became part of the community. I loved the experience so much that I could not bear to leave it behind after I completed my studies.
2. What aspects of Japanese culture appeal to you?
They are good at everything. I am fascinated by their discipline and efficiency. Did you know that the Shinkansen [bullet train] cleaning crew takes precisely seven minutes to prepare a train for its next journey when it draws into a major station?
I also like the way the Japanese do things. For instance, if I am in the wrong, they will apologise because they believe that they may have been the cause of my mistake. Another aspect that appeals to me is their respect for items. For instance, their shoes are always arranged neatly by the door. Why? Because the Japanese respect even their footwear.
3. How does Japanese culture and philosophy inspire your work?
It has influenced the way I do my work, more than my work itself. Japanese culture has taught me how to be focused and disciplined. For instance, I learnt to set a goal at the start of the day, and to reach it before I go home, even if it means working late into the night. Other aspects I learnt are respect for my elders, the importance of passion in what you do, and loyalty, especially to the country.
4. You are known for integrating different cultural styles in your work. What led you to do so? What are the challenges?
In Japan, I was taught the importance of keeping the mind free all the time. Only then can you be truly creative. To think freely is the Japanese way of life. But you have to couple it with discipline. At the same time, because I hail from Singapore, and am Malay, I cannot ignore my roots and heritage. This led me to fuse the two influences together in my pottery.
It is not challenging to intermarry the two. To me, it was obvious I should take the best of both worlds and meld them together. The Malays have always been good with design, drawing and sketching, but we don’t have the discipline of the Japanese. I took these elements and combined them.
5. Tell us about a foreign friend or artist who has influenced or helped your work.
Takashi Hibi was my lecturer at the Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre when I first arrived in Japan to study ceramics engineering. He is also a scientist and chemist, and an expert in colours and paint. We share a love of pottery. He took me under his wing after he saw my enthusiasm and dedication towards the craft. We have shared and exchanged knowledge on pottery ever since.
In my one year there, we became very close. I used to join him at the hot springs occasionally. Sometimes I would even sleep at his home, which was next to the centre, rather than make the journey home. We have remained friends through the years, meeting up at least once a year in Singapore or Japan. He’s like a brother to me.
6. You have contributed to cultural exchange and understanding between different countries. What are some positive outcomes of your actions?
My contributions are most evident in the space of pottery. Through the years, we have had more than 200 Singaporean artisans visit Japan to learn the craft and experience the culture. This enables them to learn from the best and improve on their own style. We have also had Japanese ceramicists come to Singapore. This January, we welcomed eight potters from Tokoname to exhibit here.
The flow of Singaporean artists exhibiting in Japan is only starting now. We are breaking ground bit by bit but there is no hurry. We should only go over to exhibit when we are good enough. Naturally, the Japanese treat us very well when we visit. One time, I was even invited by the Governor of Gifu to lunch.
In Cambodia, I am also involved in the Singa Kiln Project in Siem Reap to help revive the Khmer tradition of pottery.
7. What are your thoughts on leveraging the arts to make friends and foster understanding between different communities and cultures?
To me, art is just fun and where I can make a lot of friends. There is definitely value in channelling efforts towards it. For example, my community projects in Siem Reap has seen me return every six months to a year to monitor their progress. I realised that while it is important to start the ball rolling with these projects, the follow-up is even more important to ensure that this exchange and understanding is perpetuated.
I live by the mantra of “don’t talk, just do”. Artisans need to know who they are, what are their strengths, and find centres of excellence around the world to study and engage in research.
8. You spend a large part of your time nurturing young artists. Why is this important to you?
Actually, what I do is impart my knowledge to future generations of artisans. I want to do it in the hope that there is a continuation of my work. I hope they will understand the importance of having a strong foundation. As long as I have passed on my knowledge to three or four artisans, I am contented.
9. How do you hope to inspire younger generations of Singaporeans through your art?
I encourage them to come and visit me, either at my home gallery or at Temasek Potters. Not only can they see the works, they can also witness the amount of effort and hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
It takes a lot of discipline to do pottery. It goes beyond just the moulding of the clay; it also extends to keeping a clean, orderly work environment, including sweeping the garden and cleaning the house.
10. What legacy do you hope to leave?
I want to be remembered as a potter in Singapore. I hope this art form will never die out. This is what drives me to teach at Temasek Potters. Rather than copy my style, I encourage my students to develop their own style. I just want to keep the craft alive.
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