Profile: Iskandar Jalil

Published on 23 June 2015

Why Singaporean potter Iskandar Jalil shares a close affinity with Japan.

BY pamela ho

“I always wanted to be an architect but I had no money. As the eldest sibling, I supported my brothers and sisters through university. Today one’s a judge, another a scientist — and I’m the worst of the lot,” chuckles Singaporean potter Iskandar Jalil, 75, recipient of the Cultural Medallion for visual arts in 1988.

He was a Science and Mathematics teacher before receiving two Colombo Plan Scholarships to study in India and Japan. When he returned, he taught art at Baharuddin Vocational Institute and later, Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design till his retirement in 1999.

When he spent a year in Japan in 1972 studying ceramics at Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre, this avid traveller wasted no time. He recounts, “Every weekend, I took the train out — to Yokohama, Kanazawa, Takayama — but I love the small islands off Hiroshima most. Every island has beautiful architecture done by famous Japanese architects.”

His love affair with Japan has led to countless visits over the years. He has even brought his design students from Temasek Polytechnic to the country. “Till now, I bring them every year. I still have my room at my foster parents’ home, and the motorcycle they bought me.”

In recognition of his significant contribution to cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and Singapore through pottery, Iskandar was recently conferred the Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Rosette) by the Emperor of Japan.

He is the first Singaporean artist to receive this honour since the award was instituted in 1875. Other notable recipients include saxophonist Sadao Watanabe (2005) and English footballer Bobby Charlton (2012).

Come 26 August, the Japanese Creative Centre in Singapore will host an exhibition of his works. “At this exhibition, you’ll see a very architectural style. Usually, pottery is round and sensuous, but I do it in a different way, I’m using wood and metal in addition to clay, and going a bit into the twilight zone,” he jokes.

“I always tell my students: whatever you do, understand your material well. Know what it can do for you, not what you want it to do for  you,” he advises. “Follow the flow.”

Iskandar’s works can be found around the island, including Tanjong Pagar MRT station and Changi Airport Terminal 2. A retrospective exhibition next November will probably be his last. It will feature his works through four decades, as well as his writings, compiled in 60 travel journals of handwritten entries and sketches.

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