Doris Duke’s Shangri La, at the Norton Museum of Art is, by turns, an exhibition of Islamic art, a history of the collection and a portrait of the collector.
The late Doris Duke, dubbed by the press the richest girl in the world when her father — founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company and benefactor of Duke University — died in 1925 and she inherited $100 million (a billion in today’s dollars), assembled the collection and built the estate that houses it.
Several thousand artifacts spanning the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia comprise the collection, which is housed at Duke’s estate in Honolulu. After her death in 1993, it became a foundation to promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture, but one had to travel to Hawaii to see what had evolved into one of the countries largest collections of Islamic art.
Now, a selection from the collection is touring mainland museums, and its display in West Palm Beach is a homecoming of sorts.
While on their round-the-world honeymoon in 1935, Duke and her first husband James Cromwell visited India. Cromwell wrote home that Duke “has fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tiles, with their lovely floral designs with some precious stones.” The couple commissioned plans for a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bath suite to be built at the home of Cromwell’s mother, Palm Beach socialite Eva Stotesbury.
Before that project could be realized, however, Duke and Cromwell made an extended visit to Honolulu, where they purchased property on which to build a home. The couple separated not long after the house was completed, but Duke devoted the rest of her life to building and refining the house and collection.
The home she named Shangri La was designed by architect Marion Sims Wyeth, who also designed many Palm Beach residences as well the original building of the Norton Museum, making it an appropriate venue for the collection’s first display outside of Hawaii.
Among the exhibition’s highlights are ceramics and glassware from the 10th to 20th century, 18th century furniture from Turkey and Syria inlaid with mother of pearl, a silver pitcher from Kashmir, and a Spanish earthenware charger. Textiles include Egyptian tent panels and embroideries from Uzbekistan. The earliest piece in the exhibition is a first-millennium gold jug.
The dense installation of the exhibition at times hinders appreciation of individual artifacts, but it also evokes the experience of being at the estate, which merges Duke’s love of Islamic art with the tropical landscape of Hawaii. The house incorporates many architectural features that Duke had collected or commissioned.
The building itself can’t travel, of course, but the inclusion in the exhibition of a series of doors — intricately carved, painted, inlaid with ivory, decorated with brass hardware — provide a sense of place. Architectural drawings and models suggest the scope of the project. Large-scale photographs show the collection in context.
One of the unexpected pleasures of the exhibition is the inclusion of work by contemporary artists from Thailand, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan, who have been artists-in-residence at Shangri La since 2005. Viewing their work in the context of traditional art is a reminder that Islamic art is part of both living and historic culture.
Among the contemporary artists in the exhibition is Pakistani Shahzia Sikander, who studied both at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, and at the Rhode Island School of Design. A MacArthur Fellow, Sikander specializes in Indo-Persian miniature painting, an ancient tradition that she re-contextualizes in relation to contemporary issues. During her residency at Shangri La, she projected images of her artwork — paintings, calligraphy and decorative borders —onto its architecture and landscape.
Also included in the exhibition is Iranian-American artist Afruz Amighi. Heart Axe, a hand-cut stencil sheet of woven polyethylene, casts subtle shadows on the gallery wall and reflects the kaleidoscope of pattern and designs that characterize so much Islamic art.
Her use of a material commonly used to construct refugee tents is a sad reminder of the upheaval that currently prevails in much of the Islamic world, as does the display of Duke and Cromwell’s scrapbook from a collecting visit to Aleppo, an ancient city now in ruins from the Syrian civil war.
Viewed against those current events, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art is both a welcome counterbalance to the news headlines emanating from the Middle East and a reminder of the region’s long artistic tradition.