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Doris Duke’s Shangri La Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art

Doris Duke’s Shangri La Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art

Photo by Martin Munkácsi, 1939.  Shangri La, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

In 1947 Doris Duke wrote an article “My Honolulu Home” for Town and Country, which was accompanied by a glorious suite of black-and-white photographs by Maynard Parker. Published as one of only four photo shoots of Shangri La that Duke permitted during her lifetime, “My Honolulu Home” granted the curious public a glimpse of the most personal and secluded of retreats. Built between 1936 and 1938 and embellished with new acquisitions and renovations for nearly sixty years, Shangri La seamlessly melds 1930s modernist architecture; architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco, and Syria; and a large collection of Islamic art.

Duke recognized that Shangri La is a place of many identities: it is elegant, complex, embracing multiple traditions, and difficult to characterize. Calling it “a Spanish-Moorish-Persian-Indian complex,” she shyly acknowledged Shangri La’s fluid identity, paying homage to a Pan-Islamic world representing the cultures, art, and architecture that it comprises. That she managed to build such a house and set it on southeastern O‘ahu’s rocky coastline overlooking the Pacific, resolving such seemingly contradictory elements, is testament to her unerring eye and intuitive sense of the places and traditions she loved.

In her will, Duke purposefully opened the doors to Shangri La by establishing the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA) to own and manage the site and collections to promote the understanding of Islamic cultures. The process of preparing this private, very intimate home for a broader public purpose is one she set in motion thirty years before her death. Renovating the dining room to a tented interior, installing a dazzling painted room from Damascus in the late 1970s, and continuing the expansion of the collection are all physical evidence of Doris Duke at work: deliberate, thoughtful, and joyfully unconstrained by narrow, essentialist thinking.

Today, Shangri La is alive with visitors and programs, artists and scholars in residence; performances of music, dance, and poetry; and international convenings and symposia that consider contemporary issues or advance research on aspects of Islamic art. The indoor and outdoor rooms of the site are filled with conversation about the art and architecture, scenic views, and Duke’s work as a collector. With this traveling exhibition and accompanying book, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, we take a similar experience to audiences beyond Hawai‘i and hope that the story of Shangri La and Duke’s transformative engagement with the Islamic world will inspire a new appreciation of Islamic arts and cultures.

Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, on view at UMMA from January 25 to May 4, 2014, is the first exhibition to present Duke's collections to audiences throughout the continental United States. In addition to historical photographs and drawings, some sixty objects from the collection will be presented alongside new works by eight contemporary artists that participated in Shangri La’s artists-in-residence program. The contemporary artists—all with roots in the Muslim world—include Ayad Alkadhi, Afruz Amighi, Emre Hüner, Mohamed Zakariya, Shahzia Sikander, Shezad Dawood, Walid Raad, and Zakariya Amataya. For programs and tours related to Doris Duke's Shangri La, click here. 

Deborah Pope
Executive Director, Shangri La, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

This exhibition was organized by The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which is also providing generous support for its presentation at UMMA and national tour. Additional lead support for UMMA’s installation is provided by the University of Michigan Health System and the University of Michigan Office of the President. Other generous support is provided by the Monroe-Brown Foundation Discretionary Fund for Outreach to the State of Michigan, the Katherine Tuck Enrichment Fund, and the University of Michigan Center for South Asian Studies, CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund, Department of the History of Art, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Institute for the Humanities, Islamic Studies Program, and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.
Second image from the top: The Playhouse at Shangri La, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. © Tim Street-Porter 2011. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.​ Third image from the top: Syrian Room at Shangri La, Honolulu. © Tim Street-Porter 2011. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.