The 80-Year-Old Singaporean Potter Who Sculpts Imperfect Vessels

Every morning without fail, Iskandar Jalil puts his helmet on, pushes his motorcycle out the gate of his house and rides it to his workshop. Secluded in a verdant corner of Temasek Polytechnic, Iskandar’s workshop was once the centralised bin centre of the school before the artist and some of his students transformed it into Temasek Potters Studio seven years ago. Since then, Iskandar has been mostly stationed at one end of the workshop, sitting and working at his potter’s wheel, humming to the old-time tunes he plays on his radio.

At 80, Iskandar remains physically sturdy: He is petite but nimble, and his once boyish visage has weathered into a craggy atlas. When I visited his studio, he was in the middle of sculpting what he calls a “small-mouthed” vessel. “I let the clay tell me what to do,” says Iskandar, his gaze still trained on his mound of clay. “I never have in mind what it is going to be.”

Master potter Iskandar Jalil, photographed at home on July 6, 2020.
Master potter Iskandar Jalil, photographed at home on July 6, 2020.

Occasional splatters of clay would find their way to his work apron and encrust his rough fingers. Together, the instinctive rhythm of his fingers and the slight twists and bends of his wrists made a gentle dance of their own. The palms of his hands, when he asked me to touch them, felt impossibly cold, smooth and unwrinkled. That, he says, is the mark of a true potter. The surface of the hands is the initial layer through which a potter begins a dialogue with the clay. After years or decades, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it has come to mimic the very characteristics that define the material it grapples with constantly.

Iskandar at work in his studio.
Iskandar at work in his studio.

The way of the pot, of pottery is a long arduous journey — only the hardy can take it and can endure. There are no short cuts.

 

Long before he had his studio, the master potter could be found working at his own backyard. He lives in a narrow three-storey brick house in Kembangan, right across an open green field where he consistently jogs around every other morning. The house, shrouded by the greeneries of a shambolic garden, is designed by the artist himself, and it looks unmistakably his: For one, a metal plaque right outside the gate bears his name, inscribed in Arabic script. Above it, lining the gate’s top surface, are clay tableaus filled with intricate webs of swirling lines. But move your gaze upwards and behind, and you’ll see the most telling sign: a rusty penny-farthing, which the artist transported back from a Europe trip, suspended high on the house’s wall right next to a window. Neighbours would refer to his place as “the house with the bicycle.”

Iskandar’s house is a museum of sorts. Inside are neat rows of ceramic pieces of every shape, size and colour that begin from various teapots and cups within the glass cupboards in the living room and all the way to the larger pots on the shelves at the back of the house. Every detail seems intentional, as if each object was a clue about the man himself. The surface of a long, low coffee table at the entrance, for instance, displays 170 pieces of clay squares. It’s clear that Iskandar is a meticulous storyteller: Each clay square is made of the earth that Iskandar himself painstakingly procures from different parts of Singapore, from North to South and East to West. Iskandar arranged these squares on the table according to the location of their originating grounds. 

Unfailingly stationed by the wheel are Iskandar’s tools and signature flower stamp (placed third from the right).
Unfailingly stationed by the wheel are Iskandar’s tools and signature flower stamp (placed third from the right).
The master potter carving the mouth of a vessel.
The master potter carving the mouth of a vessel.

For more than 60 years now, Iskandar has only and continuously dealt with the one medium. In an essay accompanying his solo exhibition “In Pursuit of the Ethical Pot” (2015), he writes, “The way of the pot, of pottery is a long arduous journey — only the hardy can take it and can endure. There are no short cuts.”

This purist take on discipline translates to Iskandar’s reputation as an impenetrable teacher. The master potter is well-known for rejecting and throwing out the works of his students. He has mentored many of Singapore’s creatives, from the painter Ruben Pang, who fondly calls him “Uncle Iskandar”, to the potter Jeanette Wee of Adrienne Ceramics, who currently still apprentices for him at the Potters Studio. Royston Tan, the filmmaker who once trained under Iskandar, had his pot flung out from a studio on the third floor to the ground floor. According to Iskandar, Tan failed to respect his material: Raku clay is rough in its nature yet Tan decided to smooth his vessel. “When I throw out the work of a student, it’s because I don’t see them in their cuts,” he explains. “They are not honest, not only to themselves, but also to the materials they use.”

Iskandar’s signature flower stamp which he uses to mark most of his pieces.
Iskandar’s signature flower stamp which he uses to mark most of his pieces.

Iskandar himself might have well taken the longest route there was. He first encountered the potter’s wheel when he took up a pottery class as a 19-year-old trainee teacher. “It reminded me of playing with mud in the kampong,” he says. Later on, when he received the Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1966, he left to study textile design in Maharashtra, India, the hub for khadi or handwoven clothes. Training conditions for preparing yarn or working the loom were harsh.

Six years later, he moved to Gifu, Japan to study ceramics engineering. The training regime was equally gruelling. He would make 100 cups each day for weeks to perfect his technique and earn his sensei’s literal stamp of approval. “But once I got them right,” he recalls in one of his journals, “it became as easy as slurping my Häagen-Dazs ice-cream.”

Some of Iskandar’s finished pieces that are kept on the studio’s shelves.
Some of Iskandar’s finished pieces that are kept on the studio’s shelves.
The motley of paints and glazes Iskandar uses to coat his vessels.
The motley of paints and glazes Iskandar uses to coat his vessels.

While in Japan, the mingei craft movement, in particular, intrigued Iskandar. The word “mingei” itself can be translated as “arts of the people.” The movement reshapes Japanese aesthetics in the mid-20th century. In Japanese art historian Soetsu Yanagi’s essay, “What Is Folk Craft?” — which was published in 1933 and became a foundational text of the movement — the making of handmade utilitarian objects that are “indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people, that are used in commonplace settings, that are produced in large numbers, and that are inexpensive” is highlighted as mingei’s core notion. Craft, in Yanagi’s estimation, was not only an artistic movement but a moral one, nothing less than a way to save the world. This philosophy became a definitive facet of Iskandar’s own understanding of his craft. He insists on honesty and purpose in every stage of making. He teaches his students to respect their materials, but to allow beautiful imperfections to make their singular mark. He moulds pots to be fully functional, not just decorative.

The poetic imperfection of wabi-sabi is central to the artist’s body of work.
The poetic imperfection of wabi-sabi is central to the artist’s body of work.

To Iskandar, being a potter entails creating a language of aesthetics that expresses a sense of time and place, as well as their own identity. “For me, this means many things,” he writes in his essay. “Being aware of my Singapore Malay identity, my spiritual life as a Muslim, my family and social life, the things and activities that I find joy in.” Many of his creations — cups, bowls, tingkats, cooking pots, a wooden coffee table featuring slabs of clay he procured from all over Singapore — were intentionally made for the ordinary Malay home. Some vessels are marked with his observations. “I once made a pot inscribed with the names of the kampongs that have been demolished in Singapore,” he says. “While they have been physically erased, I wanted their names to be immortalised in fired clay.”

For now, Iskandar has taken time off from teaching classes. Having dealt with prostate cancer since 2014, the artist, with a glint of dry wit, likes to say he hasn’t much time left. These days, he spends most of his time at the workshop, usually alone but also often with apprentices who he regards as both students and fellow potters he can exchange ideas with. “I always see myself as a teacher first,” he says, “and then a potter. It’s in my blood.”

Photographs by Rosalynn Tay