Professor Tommy Koh's remarks at the exhibition of Iskandar Jalil’s Works

September 02, 2016

Thank Yous

I wish to begin by thanking the National Gallery of Singapore for organising this major retrospective of the works of our beloved master potter, Iskandar Jalil.  I wish also to thank the Gallery and Cik Gu for inviting me to officiate at the opening of this important exhibition.

Friends Of 25 Years

Cik gu and I have been friends for a quarter of a century.  We became friends in 1991 when I was appointed as the first Chairman of the National Arts Council.  I overcame some resistance on the part of colleagues who argued that pottery is a craft and not an art.  I argued in favour of including pottery in the NAC’s agenda on the ground that pottery is both a craft and an art.  Some potters are mere craftsmen.  Other potters, like Iskandar, are both artists and craftsmen.  I also included photography and film in the NAC’s agenda for the same reason.  Over the years, our friendship has strengthened and my admiration for Cik Gu has deepened. I often introduce myself as the self-appointed Chairman of the Iskandar Jalil Fan Club.

Iskandar Is A Singapore Icon

Iskandar Jalil is a world class potter and ceramic artist.  His distinction and stature have been recognised at home and abroad.  In Singapore, he has been conferred with the Cultural Medallion and the highest honour accorded to our top artists, the Meritorious Service Medal.  In 2015, the Emperor of Japan conferred on him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.  This year, he received an honorary doctoral degree from NTU.

If Singapore were Japan, I am sure that Cik Gu would be named as a “National Living Treasure”.  In my view Iskandar has already become a national icon of Singapore.  His name is widely known and admired.  It is the ambition of many Singaporeans to own a pot by Iskandar.  A few of our second generation artists will, in time, join our four pioneer artists, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen and Liu Kang, in the pantheon of Singapore’s great artists.  I am confident that Iskandar will be one of them.

Iskandar Is A Great Artist

Is Iskandar a great artist?

A great artist is one who, because of his innate talent and a lifetime of practice, reaches a level of achievement which makes his work special and unique.  A great artist imparts his personality and spirit to his works.  When we see a painting by Georgette Chen, for example, we immediately recognise it as a Georgette Chen.  In the same way, when we see a pot by Iskandar Jalil, we immediately recognise it as a Iskandar Jalil.  Why?  Because it embodies the essence of the creator.  According to one of Cik Gu’s disciples, Suriani Suratman, that essence is the distillation of his skills, values, ideals and convictions.  This is the mark of a great artist, as opposed to a good artist.  There are many good artists but very few great artists.  Iskandar Jalil is a great artist.

Teacher And Mentor

We also admire Iskandar Jalil, the teacher and mentor.  Throughout his career, Iskandar has combined practice with teaching.  He is a dedicated, demanding and inspiring teacher.  Some of his students have described his method of teaching as “tough love”.  He demands discipline and respect for the artistic process.  If he is not satisfied with the work of a student, he would sometimes break it or toss it out of the window, earning him the nickname, “The Flying Missile”.  However, behind the tough exterior, is a warm and loving heart.  He has quietly sponsored many of his students on overseas cultural programmes.  He is lovingly referred to by his students, past and present, as “Cik Gu”.

Pot From S R Nathan

The exhibition features 180 works by Cik Gu spanning a period of over 50 years.

The Gallery has borrowed two pots by Cik Gu from my wife’s collection.  One of them is particularly meaningful.  In 2006, I was one of the recipients of the inaugural President’s Award for the Environment.  President S R Nathan gave me a beautiful pot by Iskandar as the award.  I will always treasure the pot, created by a great artist and presented to me by a great son of Singapore.

On that note, I have great pleasure in declaring Kembara Tanah Liat open.

Thank you very much. Terima kasih.


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