See mythical beasts at Esplanade
Anthropomorphic creatures stalk across a series of striking murals that unfold on the Esplanade Community Wall, speaking to humankind’s fallibility and vanity.
The Menagerie Race, by Singaporean artist Muhammad Izdi, is visual storytelling on a grand scale, showing us how greed and worldly diversions get in the way of our search for the true meaning of life.
Artists through the ages have pondered the darker side of human nature. Izdi namechecks The Conference of the Birds,written by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar in the 12th century, which pits the quest for spiritual truth against worldly distractions (neatly illustrating the fact that the poet’s own quest was cut short by Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes when they massacred the inhabitants of the city of Nishapur). Another touchstone is Aesop’s fable, The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, which rails against man’s instinctive greed.
Having established himself as a skilled illustrator, Izdi expanded his practice to mixed media installation, sculpture and animation. Whichever medium he works in, the imagery and symbolism often draw from myth, folklore, ghost stories and pop culture to reflect on the mysteries of the human condition.
The A List spoke to the artist about what sparked this large-scale project, his evolving style, and the challenge of putting together the Esplanade installation during COVID-19 restrictions.
How did you come up with The Menagerie Race as a title for this work?
Muhammad Izdi: There’s an old lithograph that actually sparked the idea – A Menagerie Race At Singapore (1872). It was presented by Dr Timothy Barnard during a talk called Animals and Imagery at the National Gallery Singapore a few years back. I feel this artwork has a common theme with much of my work, so I thought of borrowing the title. Metaphorically, it’s quite apt in representing my narrative – continual competition with each other in a dog-eat-dog world.
Photo: National Archives of Singapore
Is The Menagerie Race a mythic depiction of human folly? Is that the narrative?
Izdi: Yes, it is. The theme of my work has always been the same, and that is my observation of the human condition in current polarised times.
The Menagerie Race has echoes of the anthropomorphic creatures in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and, at the same time, brings to mind the silhouettes one sees in Indonesian shadow puppet theatre. How would you describe the style?
Izdi: My earlier work tended to be more traditional, focusing on details and getting it as realistic as possible, but my style is evolving to become more streamlined and stylised. The intention is to help people engage more directly with the narrative. The Menagerie Race is the first work in which I explore this new visual style.
What was the practical process of creating these huge panels?
Izdi: It was challenging to complete the mural due to time restrictions caused by Covid regulations so, together with the Esplanade’s exhibition team, we decided to use a stencil approach in creating the artwork, which definitely helps accelerate the process. Assistance from volunteers helped, too!
Replies have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Muhammad Izdi’s extensive artwork will be displayed at the Esplanade Community Wall until 2 Jan. Find out more about The Menagerie Race here.