UNTIL THE master potter Iskandar Jalil (b 1940, Singapore) came along, the making of pottery languished in relative obscurity as a minor craft in his birthplace. During a 40-year career, he worked to give it the recognition it deserved. Iskandar’s encounter with clay was almost accidental. Hailing from a family of teachers, he gravitated towards the profession, and fulfilled a craft option by choosing textiles and pottery. They went on to stretch his horizons: the first led him to Maharashtra, India, in 1966 to study textile design and weaving and the second to Tajimi, Japan, in 1972 to learn ceramics engineering. The latter changed the course of his life. Returning home to teach, he became a mentor to generations of pottery students. Iskandar imbued his pots with the spirit of Nusantara, the ‘Malay Archipelago’, whose unity of design and execution speak of insights learnt from Japan. They are material witnesses to the evolution of pottery in Singapore as the craft gradually emerged a part of the fabric of society. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1988, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion by the Singapore government and last year, he was bestowed the ultimate honour, the Order of the Rising by the Japanese Government. But Iskandar is not resting on his laurels. He is anticipating the landmark exhibition, Iskandar Jalil: Kembara Tanah Liat, ‘Clay Travels’, opening at the National Gallery Singapore on 1 September and discusses works that chart his life’s journey with clay in this exclusive interview with the Asian Art Newspaper.
ASIAN ART NEWSPAPER: When and how did you discover clay?
ISKANDAR JALIL: Actually I have been throwing pots since the 1960s. Although trained in mathematics and science, one headmaster insisted that I also teach art – based on the premise that I could draw! I had spent almost a year learning textile design and basic weaving from the Arts and Crafts department where pottery was also taught. But I found a natural affinity for pottery and was able to relate to clay almost immediately. It is a subject anyone could do. Only the chemistry aspects – such as understanding the oxidation and the reduction processes of firing in a kiln – posed some problems. After graduating in 1962, I was given a head start in the vocational schools, and was sent to one to teach art and weaving.
AAN: Do you remember the sensation you experienced when first handling clay?
IJ: I found the material close to my heart and to my hands. In the beginning I had a problem throwing on the wheel. The complexities of understanding the chemistry of clay were also a challenge. However, there is nothing quite like physically seeing how a pot can grow into shape from a lump of clay.
AAN: You subsequently departed for Tajim,i in Gifu prefecture Japan, in 1972. What was your apprenticeship like?
IJ: After teaching for a decade, I was offered a scholarship to study pottery in Japan. It was a ceramics engineering course at Tajimi, often called the ‘mecca’ of ceramics. The training was tough and rigorous. I stayed with a foster family called Miwa and woke up at 5.30 every morning, to travel from their home in Chikusa to Tajimi by train. I then walked half an hour to reach the class. The entire classroom was for one’s use. Every morning we started with two hours of Japanese phonetics and grammar. In the afternoon we were taught technical Japanese. In the evening we had another two hours of Japanese culture – to do with the cha-no-yu, ‘tea ceremony’ and ikebana, ‘flower arrangement’. The idea is to fully immerse you in their language and culture. One can master the basic verbal language of Japanese quite easily. For me, personally, Japanese is phonetically very close to Malay. You just have to understand the root verbs and their conjugations.
AAN: What did you learn from your stint in Tajimi, did it instil a particular philosophy or outlook?
IJ: At Tajimi I was taught the rudiments of clay technology. After the basic training, I was asked to make around 50 pots a day – it amounted to some 300 pots a week. They were all smashed by the teacher. The next day I did the same thing and it happened again. This went on for weeks until one day, he took one and stamped it with his seal. I asked him why he did that since it was my pot. He said it did not belong to me. Then I was told I could now proceed to making a cylinder. I went on to learn all the other practical and cultural aspects of pottery. Eventually, after a few months, students were taken to meet practising potters at their kilns so that we could see them work. It was a privilege because today they are master-potters. By the end of the programme, I had a good command of the language and a deeper understanding of the nuances of the culture.
AAN: In Japan, the tea bowl is fundamental to the art of ceramics. How difficult was it to master?
IJ: The bowl is an icon for giving and also for receiving. It is an icon for all cultures. Beginners would not even dare to make a tea bowl. You must use the right tools, the right material, and the right clay. You need to have the right philosophy. You must feel what you are doing. Still – after all these decades – I hesitate to make a tea bowl. I am not a tea master because I must have the background of the great Sen-no-Rikkyu to even contemplate making one.
AAN: How did you apply/adapt the making of ceramic forms to your work when you returned to Singapore?
IJ: When I came home in the 1970s I was asked to start the pottery department at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute. Schools in Singapore were then beginning to introduce full-scale pottery lessons. At the time I tried to elevate the craft of ceramics into an art. Looking back, I was too anxious, too fast and furious. Too much in a hurry. I had no idea of form and espoused no philosophy.
AAN: You once said your dialogue with clay came from the heart, the fire and the clay material. What transpires in your mind when you sit at the wheel?
IJ: The feeling is that there is a conversation between us. The clay has its own voice and helps to set the direction for the making of the object. It is earthy, raw, pliable and sensuous. You cannot force it to be what it is not. If it is too soft I cannot make round forms. As far as possible I always use local clay. My sources include abandoned construction sites and even graveyards. Our local clay is a terracotta brown and the area in Singapore called Alexandra, which used to host brickwork factories, has plenty. The Seletar area also has good clay. That in the Tampines area contains impurities such as coarse grains of sand, but there is beauty in impurity, in imperfection. During my frequent travels to Japan I even brought back clay from Mashiko.
AAN: Did you derive inspiration from the surrounding sources in Nusantara, the ‘Malay archipelago’, and if so, from what aspects?
IJ: Some of my earlier work embraced architectural attributes – I wanted to be an architect when I was young, but my father had no money. So I became a teacher instead and, as the eldest, helped support my four siblings. I love travelling, particularly to Morocco and Marrakesh – some of whose architectural forms are made from memory. The true basis for the serious study of architecture lies with the humble, indigenous buildings everywhere. They are to architecture what folklore is to literature, or folk songs to music … functions are truthfully conceived and rendered invariably with natural feeling. Other shapes are inspired by structures such as the Minangkabau house originating from Sumatra, and the perahu,‘boat’.
AAN: What are your sources for design?
IJ: I do not know how I get my ideas. It is a quest I find very difficult to answer. Most probably from the people around me and from my annual pilgrimages to most countries. Also from my students. I make them conceptualise ideas, analyse and interpret concepts and forms, and indirectly force them on myself. It is a training and mental discipline,a culture after many years of work – to which my heritage, culture and background probably also contributes.
AAN: What techniques do you favour in the making of your pots?
IJ: It all depends on the nature of the clay – I apply the technique according to what I have in hand. I also hand-build my pieces, which you should learn before throwing. Most of their forms are based on ideas that emerge from sketches. I have a habit of always carrying a notebook whenever I travel – to record my thoughts with drawings.
AAN: You seem to have a fondness for coloured clay, can you tell us why?
IJ: Coloured clay usually surfaces in layering, called lapis in Malay, one of my favourite techniques. To get an even thickness I use the slab roller or rolling pin on a piece of clay, then slice it into strips of varied widths. I lay them on a base of my own design. Joining the inner slabs to make the inside surface, I leave the outer surface untouched so that a natural wall forms. Another approach is coiling, a method used to build up the walls of pots with ropes of clay. I fashion longer slabs as coils, piling them on top of each other to form a wall for the vessel. The different coloured clays used for the slabs and the coils often create a very interesting effect on the finished product. Moreover the kueh lapis, a Malay layered cake has inspired some of their forms.
AAN: Your signature forms seem to be functional or utilitarian ones associated with domestic life?
IJ: Well, in general, I draw upon my Malay consciousness and character. Because most modern forms are very different, my pots are an extension of my identity, culture and background. For instance the Malay dress, baju kurung for women features on some of my receptacles. The wayang kulit or ‘shadow play’ theatre also inspires some forms. Utilitarian things that are familiar to me, like the kentong, the Malay ‘drum’ calling us for prayers, assembly and announcements. Implements from the kitchen, the cawan, ‘cup’, the lesong, the ‘mortar and pestle’ for pounding ingredients and the kuali, ‘wok for frying’. What brings back fond memories is the mangkuk tingkat, ‘tiffin carrier’, its compartments stacked with food. Occasionally I use the buyong ‘swelling’ forms on cylindrical vessels. Even the Malay keris, a hand combat weapon, full of mystery and myth – known throughout Nusantara, the Malay archipelago – and looked upon by Malays and Indonesians as a vital part of folklore. It is an inspiration and an icon, a pride for all Malays and appears on some of my cylindrical pots. We cannot be innovative or creative if we do not cultivate tools from our own heritage.
AAN: Are there any forms which pose a particular challenge to you?
IJ: The teapot is the most challenging of forms. It requires a precise, engineering mind and enormous discipline. You need years of practice as well as a deep aesthetic sense before you can throw a perfect sample. I have even adapted the gasing, ‘spinning top’, a popular children’s toy – now largely forgotten – as an inverted conical shaped teapot. I am fascinated by teapot handles, their endless shapes and sizes have led me to use different materials such as bamboo and twigs for them. I also like the kendi, a vessel used by people from Morocco to the Middle East, and from the Indian subcontinent to Java. It possesses a round tummy, a funny but very functional spout and a long neck used as a handle. It is nothing complicated, mostly made of earthenware – its porosity makes water very cool to drink.
AAN: What influences have inspired the surface textures and motifs on your ceramics?
IJ: Probably my earlier experience with textiles. I was in Maharashtra in India in 1966, the year Indira Gandhi became the country’s first female prime minister. I was learning textile weaving and design at Nasik, the centre of the khadi industries, where coarse homespun cotton cloth was made. It included selecting raw cotton to prepare for weaving into yarn. I had to prepare the weaving loom and complete the pieces of tabby weaving in eight hours! I also learnt the basic weaving of the jacquard. At Nasik, I took the opportunity to learn Hindi and Sanskrit and read up on Indian history and philosophy, particularly Gandhi-ji’s philosophy of non-violence. I also travelled around India to see the different types of weaving. To Delhi for silk weaving, Kashmir for carpet weaving, Kanchipuram for lungi cotton sarongs and also Madras, Poona, Mumbai and Varanasi. I gained enormously from these experiences and went straight back to the teaching profession on my return home.
AAN: Have there been any influences from Nusantara, the Malay world, on the making of these textures?
IJ: Gradually I applied the ideas of tie-dye and criss-cross weaving for the surface decoration of my pots. From the Malay world I love the kain songket, the luxurious fabric woven with gold or silver thread. I also use wax resist impression from batik quite often. The most practical way to do the decoration is to use a basket. Cut up the basket and leave the base open. Roll the clay and press it onto the surface to make square, rectangular or triangular forms. All these forms are rather stiff. They do not obey the primeval, sensitive and sensuous characteristics of clay. I also use combing and wavy lines – decorating the wet surface of a pot with a blunt-toothed comb.
AAN: What other embellishments do you use?
IJ: Later I used twigs and small branches to embellish my pots. I even applied Jawi – Javanese script and khat, the traditional Malay script as surface decoration. Occasionally I use pre-Islamic symbols from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.
AAN: Are you partial to any particular type of glazes?
IJ: My favourite glazes are the shinos, the ash glazes, the matt range of barium blues to green and celadon. I dislike commercial glazes and prefer to make my own in my workshop – here again my chemistry background has proven invaluable. The glazes are reduction fired in two of my gas kilns which have served me well for over 20 years. I also often use leftover slips with a minimum addition of metallic oxides.
AAN: What is called ‘Iskandar Blue’ has been identified with you, what are its special qualities?
IJ: In 1991, I participated in a solo show called Singapore Pottery in Stockholm. However during the week I was there I noticed that there was no character for colour in Swedish pottery. The sky and sea there is an intense blue, their flag is blue but they are not used to seeing blue – as we see it – in their country. Returning to Singapore I started creating a vivid barium blue that began appearing in the 1990s. People have called it ‘Iskandar Blue’.
AAN: Are there any distinct phases in your repertoire? How have you moved from, or developed one form into another?
IJ: Not really. They are all pottery forms. They are not like painting. My forms have endured almost 60 years. Clay is responsive to the touch, my hands are smooth because of all these years of making and engaging with pottery.
AAN: Do you think you have reinvented the art of ceramics?
IJ: No, I have not. It was reinvented long, long ago.
AAN: What drives you to make pottery?
IJ: Probably the desire for knowledge. It makes me want to know more about pottery and about myself. As Socrates says: Know thyself. The ups and downs in doing my experiments in clays and glazes, makes the urge to know myself stronger. Pottery is what I am!
AAN: Are there any innovations that you would like to see being introduced in Singapore?
IJ: I am very much taken by the artisanal way of working with clay. An opportunity to study in Japan for example offers a system of training and working which has an artisanal approach. Upon graduation or after university, one is sent to be apprenticed or attached to a teacher for three months. Otherwise you might go to a company, learn more about clay and get a decent salary. In Finland there is an entire village of artisans called Fiskars about 100 km outside Helsinki. While Fiskars is synonymous with an orange-handled scissors – it was a centre for iron works and iron manufacturing for some 350 years – its products also include high quality Finnish industrial design and famous pottery. Every two months, representatives from the company Arabia come along and select a potter to design their pottery. We should take a leaf from this system and adapt it to Singapore.
AAN: Is it correct to say you are a craftsman at heart?
IJ: Yes, I am. When you do anything, do it properly. Whether pottery or woodwork, I am very particular and fastidious. There must be sound craftsmanship, to understand the actual craft of making. Craftsmanship is how you build something entirely on your own and develop it all by yourself. It could take 30 to 40 years, maybe more, even a lifetime …
BY YVONNE TAN