The legacy of Singapore’s Master Potter


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We’re quick to worship Joseph Schooling and squeal over The Sam Willows, but there are many unsung Singaporean heroes out there that deserve just as much of a mention. One such legend is Iskandar Jalil, Singapore’s Master Potter.

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Having dedicated 50 years of his life mastering the workings of clay, it’s no surprise that Iskandar’s creations have won him awards, even leading the Japanese emperor to confer The Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Rosette) on him. From now to the 28th of Feb 2017, you can see over 150 of his best works on display at the National Gallery Singapore.

Here’s a guide of what to look out for:


Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels)


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Mention pottery, and the first thing that comes to mind is crockery. But clay has a lot more to offer than just that. With the variety of works that Iskandar created, there are functional items like teapots to art sculptures to decorative pieces inspired by his experiences and travels.

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The exhibition spans over two of the National Gallery’s spaces – The Ngee Ann Kongsi Concourse Gallery, and Concourse Gallery 2. Entering the first space, you’ll notice that the room is divided into six distinct themes. Each piece of art is displayed on little islands to signify fluidity and allow for a more intimate experience.

With pieces that date all the way back to the 1960s, it was as if I had accompanied the man himself throughout his artistic journey over the years. Every piece tells a tale and documents a significant milestone in his life.

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Some displayed the overseas influences he was exposed to while he was studying, while others, influenced by his life experiences, will make you think “so Singaporean”.


Learn about Singapore’s history from the perspective of a common man


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Looking at these pieces alone will send you on a nostalgia trip. Modelled after a traditional Tingkat, it brought back memories of how my parents would bring food over to my grandfather in the past. 

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All of the pieces you’ll see in this collection were inspired by ordinary items Iskandar encountered in his daily life growing up, and made with soil from our little red dot to capture as much of the Singapore spirit as possible.

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Other pieces encompass more of a jovial ‘kampong’ spirit like this piece – 3 Gundus

Iskandar wasn’t just a potter his whole life; coaching a netball team in the past helped him to create pieces like “Alamak Netball Again”, which was also part of his joint exhibition with his wife, Saleha, in 1988. 

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Alamak Netball Again (far right) – Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

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How traveling impacted his art


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Like some young, wild, and free wanderlusters; no matter where he ventured to, Iskandar always took the road less travelled. This way, he got to truly experience the city he was in, and translated that insider knowledge into his pottery.

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It was in Scandinavia that he realised that the sky and the waters were a bright blue, yet none of their pottery shared the same colour. This inspired him to use cobalt carbonate and oxide in his glaze, giving birth to his signature blue glaze, “Iskandar blue”.

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Training in Japan helped Iskandar embrace imperfection, and see the beauty when accidents happened in his work. So don’t be surprised to see some pieces that are dented or warped, because he’s kept them that way for a reason!


See how functional his pieces are in a traditional Malay house setting


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If you want to visualise how his art would normally be used or displayed in a home, check out “Some of you will be asked to leave”. Built by Gerald Leow who was inspired by Iskandar’s love of architecture, it takes the shape of a traditional Malay house and is filled with personal pieces. This allows visitors to see how art doesn’t have to focus on the aesthetics – it can be functional too.

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Stay in the room long enough and you’ll see how the lights change to signify day to night every half an hour. This ties in with the nature elements that Iskandar incorporates in his art works, like twigs and branches.

While pottery is an art, many don’t see the science that goes into the making of the pieces. From the temperature of the kiln when they’re being fired to the chemicals that go into making the glaze, the minutest of details affects the end product.

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A plant that died in a vase he made, converted into a hat stand

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This is an actual table taken from his house!

One of the pieces that really caught my eye was his personal table brought from his house that was filled with clay samples of different motifs. Iskandar collects clay wherever he goes, so this is one way for him to remember where each clay tile was from and where he’s been.


Find out more at Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat


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With such a comprehensive display of Iskandar’s works, there’s never a better time to visit and learn more about Singapore’s master potter. You don’t even need experience in pottery or ceramics – this will be an eye-opening experience.

From crockery to art pieces, pottery is a lot more than just making tea cups and bowls. Come down to Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels) and gain knowledge on pottery as a craft, and how one man has helped to shape the ceramic scene here, be it through his works or his teachings.

If you’d prefer to have someone to guide you and explain more the exhibition itself, you can join the special tour by Seng Yujin, the Senior Curator of National Gallery Singapore on the 30th of September at 7.30pm for $25. 

Find out more about the full list of programmes and activities here!

General Admission: Free for all Singaporeans and PRs; $20 for a single day pass for foreigners

Don’t forget to bring your student card/IC for free entry to the museum.

This post was brought to you by National Gallery Singapore.

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