Tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who died in 1993, built a fantasy compound in Honolulu to showcase an exquisite collection of Islamic art she’d acquired in her many travels.
You can get an exhilarating peek into this elegant, rarefied life by visiting “Doris Duke’s Shangri-La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 4.
Organized by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and curated by architectural historians David Albrecht and Tom Mellins, the show is a multifaceted affair touching on architecture, interior design, precious objects and contemporary Islamic art.
Duke first fell in love with the art of the Muslim world in 1935, while honeymooning in India with her first husband. Like many visitors, she fell head over heels in love with the Taj Mahal, igniting a lifelong passion.
Her Honolulu estate, Shangri-La, was the product of that enthusiasm and is the real star of the UMMA show. Designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, one of the architects who created Palm Beach, Fla., the house mixes both the ancient and the modern, reflecting its owner’s eclectic interests, and is rich in sliding panels and grill work that diffuses the tropical light.
“Duke herself was decorating this house,” says co-curator Albrecht. “She didn’t see it as a work of art, or see the house as a museum. So she had no problem mixing the vintage with the modern.”
One of the coolest things about this exhibit are the light boxes that illuminate enormous, high-quality images of the house interior. The pictures are so crisp and luminous, you feel you could step right into them.
And who wouldn’t want to step into a home’s “Dressing Room in the Mughal Suite,” with its etched-glass ceiling, and elegant palette of white, beige and silver? Or check out the gorgeous “Syrian Room,” meant to resemble “a prosperous Ottoman-era Damascus home,” as the panel informs us.
Just like Shangri-La itself, the show mixes the modern and the ancient. Alongside 1930s photographs, displays of Duke’s antique jewelry and the architectural plans and images of Shangri-La itself, the curators have hung striking examples of contemporary work by Islamic artists both here and abroad.
In particular, seek out the prints of Persian calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya, an Iranian-American artist who did one of the artistic residencies offered by the Duke Foundation at Shangri-La itself. “There Is Nothing Like Him,” rendered in gold leaf on celery-colored paper, is stunning.
Mohamed Zakariya is an Iranian-American artist who did one of the artistic ... (University of Michigan Museum of Art)
Doris Duke and James Cromwell collected Islamic art. (University of Michigan Museum of Art)
This mosaic tile gateway is from the Shangri-La estate. (University of Michigan Museum of Art)