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Visual Arts

Iskandar Jalil

Singapore’s foremost master potter


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Art is sheer hard work and a lot of experiments. Know what your strengths are. Do things the hardest way, not the shortcut way.

Iskandar Jalil is Singapore’s foremost master potter. Apprenticed and trained in Japan on a prestigious Colombo Plan scholarship in the ’70s, Iskandar creates organic, textured works of clay that marry Japanese discipline and philosophy with Southeast Asian and Islamic motifs and inspirations from his travels. His works feature in many public and private collections, including those of the National Museum of Sweden, Sultan of Brunei and Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. At the heart of his approach to pottery—one of hard work and discipline, honesty and authenticity—lies a fierce integrity that seeks only the highest quality. In 1988, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born on 5 Jan 1940 in Singapore, Iskandar Jalil grew up the youngest of five children in Kampong Chantek in Bukit Timah. He went on to become a mathematics and science graduate at the Teachers’ Training College. It was during this time that he also developed an interest in art while taking an art module there in 1959, eventually becoming an art teacher.

In 1966, Iskandar received a Colombo Plan scholarship to study textile weaving and spinning in India. After that, he was talent-spotted by an inspector of schools, who got him to teach pottery in the newly established Baharuddin Vocational Institute. While there, he received another Colombo Plan scholarship and went to study ceramics engineering at Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre in Japan.

There, Iskandar fell in love with pottery and developed a lifelong respect for Japanese craftsmanship, philosophy, discipline and culture. He was especially struck by the Mingei Craft Movement of the early 1900s which championed the handcrafted art of ordinary people and celebrated the beauty in finely made everyday utilitarian objects. He was also inspired by an apprenticeship to the late renowned Japanese folk art ceramicist, Shoji Hamada, as well as English potter Bernard Leach, whom he had met in Mexico. Iskandar’s time in Japan would be hugely influential on his later pottery work.

After Japan, Iskandar returned to Singapore with a new view of pottery and his dual roles as a potter and pottery teacher. He became a potter defined by discipline, hard work, authenticity and instinct, and approached his works economically, using limited means and local materials. He prepared his own clay and glazes rather than buying pottery materials, and believed in letting the clay guide his craft. His works—comprising utilitarian “bread-and-butter” pieces as well as art works—became known for their subtle use of Southeast Asian motifs, their matte glazes, their often-present blue oxide colour which came to be known as “Iskandar Blue”, and their distillation of his identity and experiences into simple, earthy pieces.

Iskandar remained a teacher for over five decades until his retirement when he began to teach privately. He taught subjects such as art, pottery and material design at Singapore educational institutions, namely Baharuddin Vocational Institute, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and in the School of Design in Temasek Polytechnic. A strict teacher with very high standards, Iskandar was a fearsome educator who used to tear up work and give zero marks for shoddy work. His students over the years included respected arts critic Kirpal Singh, actress Zoe Tay, food critic K. F. Seetoh, and filmmaker Royston Tan. In his private practice, Iskandar continued to be formidable mentor whose stringent teaching methods required his students to destroy and discard any work that was not up to standard.

Throughout his career, Iskandar has participated in 34 group art and ceramic exhibitions in Singapore and overseas, been invited to exhibit in countries such as Korea and Sweden, and held 12 solo exhibitions. Iskandar has also created many large-scale commissions. These include a mural at the Tanjong Pagar MRT station in Singapore in 1988, a wall mural at Changi International Airport Terminal 2 in 1990, a work for the clocktower at Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan in 1992, a wall mural for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and a work at the Marina Barrage for Singapore’s Public Utilities Board in 2004. His works also feature in many private and public collections in Singapore and around the world, such as those of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, its former President Wee Kim Wee, the Sultan of Brunei, former USA president George Bush, and the National Museums of Singapore and Sweden.

Iskandar was also an active promoter of the arts. In the ’90s, he served as arts advisor to the National Arts Council and a committee member with the Creative Arts Centre at National University of Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum. At that time, he was also among 10 arts leaders—including art critic and curator T. K. Sabapathy, Professor Tommy Koh, artists Ong Kim Seng, Thomas Yeo, and Joseph McNally—selected by President Ong Teng Cheong to discuss how to make the Singapore arts scene more vibrant, eventually leading to the conception of a national performing arts centre, which came to be Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

For his many contributions, Iskandar has received numerous awards including the 1977 Special Award at the National Day Art Exhibition and 2012 Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star). In 1988, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore. When he returned to Japan in 2000 to visit his old teacher, the latter conferred on him the title of “master potter” in acknowledgement of the full circle of his journey. In 2015, in recognition of his contributions in building cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and Singapore for over 40 years, Iskandar was conferred the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Emperor of Japan, making him the first Singapore artist to receive the award.

Today, Iskandar continues to travel regularly for inspiration. He also continues to teach pottery privately and create both utilitarian ceramic pieces and art works. Through the decades, he has had his studio-teaching centre housed at the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts, the Malay Heritage Centre, the Jalan Bahar kiln and in his home. He currently practices and teaches at a pottery centre located in Temasek Polytechnic, which has a garden that functions as a “pottery graveyard”, strewn with sub-standard work that has been broken and discarded.

An exhibition of Iskandar’s at the Japan Creative Centre in 2015—In Pursuit of the Ethical Pot—featured his works, but put the spotlight on the works of a selection of his students, whom he hopes will take his place one day and carry his artistic philosophy on.


5 Jan 1940

Born in Singapore.

1955 to 1959

Attended Victoria School.

1960 to 1963

Attended Teacher’s Training College, Singapore.

1962 to 1966

Science, Mathematics and Art teacher, Siglap Secondary School.


Received Colombo Plan Scholarship (Textile), Maharashtra, India.


Participated in ASEAN Art Exhibition, Malaysia.


Received Colombo Plan Scholarship (Ceramics Engineering), Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre, Japan.


Participated in 14 Singapore Ceramics Artists, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.


Participated in Contemporary Singapore Sculpture, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.


Received Special Award, National Day Art Exhibition.

1977 to 1983

External Examiner, MARA Institute of Technology, Malaysia.


Participated in Ceramics and Sculpture, Gallery Asia, Singapore.


Participated in International Design, Osaka, Japan.


Solo exhibition Raw, Earthy and Pliable at Alpha Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in International Ceramics, Taipei, Taiwan.


Participated in Clayworks, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.


Participated in Contemporary Ceramics, National Museum, Singapore.

Participated in Basic, National Museum, Singapore.

Participated in National Museum's Centenary Art Festival, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Ying and Yang, National University of Singapore


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Participated in Clay and Cloth (joint exhibition of pottery and quilt arts with his wife), National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Infinity, Westin Stamford Hotel, Singapore.

Member, Advisory Council for Visual Arts, Ministry of Community Development, Singapore.


Solo exhibition The Potters Journey, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Created wall mural, Changi International Airport Terminal 2, Singapore.

1990 to 1999

Lecturer, School of Design, Temasek Polytechnic.


Solo exhibition Singapore’s Pottery, Stockholm, Sweden.

Participated in Clay Pieces, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Created souvenirs for International Design Forum Speakers, Design Centre, Singapore


Solo exhibition Ceramics, Miyazaki, Japan.

Created work for clocktower, Miyazaki, Japan.

Created special gifts, Sotheby’s Singapore, Plum Blossoms Gallery, and the National Book Council, Singapore.

Member, Arts Advisory Panel, National Arts Council, Singapore.


Solo exhibition, Hong Kong Festival of Arts, Hong Kong.


Appointed Fellow, Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore.

Participated in Contrast, Takashimaya Gallery, Singapore.

Created corporate gifts, Keppel Shipyard, Singapore.


Solo exhibition My Dialogue With Clay, Takashimaya Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Singapore Art ‘95, Suntec City, Singapore.

Participated in 4th International Ceramics Competition 1995, Tajimi Gifu, Japan.

Participated in Malay Artists, Petronas Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Designed and created the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award, Berita Harian, Singapore.

Designed and created the Singapore International Foundation Award, Singapore


Participated in Handmade:Shifting Paradigms, Singapore Art Museum.

Received Pingat Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Artists of Various Resources, Singapore


Conferred title of “master potter” by former teacher in Japan.


Square One – A Potter’s Journey published by Economic Development Board, featuring Iskandar’s commissioned work to mark its 40th anniversary other works.

Solo exhibition Potter’s Life, Potter’s Thoughts, Ministry of Information and the Arts, Singapore.


Received Berita Harian Achiever of the Year award. The award was designed by Iskandar in 1995.


Solo exhibition, New Zealand International Arts Festival, New Zealand.

Participated in Material Matters: Inaugural Exhibition of the Arts House, The Gallery, The Arts House, Singapore.


Participated in Ceramics Beyond Borders: Commemorating 40 years of Bilateral Ties between Singapore and Japan, National Library Building, Singapore.


Solo exhibitions The Pottery Voice of Iskandar Jalil, Art-2 Gallery, MICA Building, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Material, Message, Metaphor, Art-2 Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Fourth World Ceramics Biennale, Incheon, Gwangju and Yeoju, Korea

2008 to 2010

Artist-in-residence, Malay Heritage Centre.


Solo exhibition Images of My Pottery Travels, Art-2 Gallery, Singapore.

Published Iskandar Jalil: Images of My Pottery Travels


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

19 Jan 2013 to 8 Feb 2013

Presented an exhibition of his and his students’ pottery works, Japan Creative Centre, Singapore.

27 Aug 2015 to 12 Sep 2015

Solo exhibition In Pursuit of the Ethical Pot, Japan Creative Centre, Singapore

29 Apr 2015

Received Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Emperor of Japan in recognition of his contributions in building cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and Singapore for over 40 years. He is the first Singapore artist to receive the award.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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