An heiress’s Mughal dream becomes our own

Culture / This book accompanies a traveling exhibition, “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art,” which opened in New York on September 7, 2012, at the Museum of Arts and Design. Both book and exhibition tell many stories of Shangri La, as the Black Point estate came to be known. The exhibition is also the first to share the estate and collection of Doris Duke beyond our island; it will travel to 5 other mainland museums before returning to our own Honolulu Museum of Art in March of 2015.

The large-format book contains cherished archival photos of Doris Duke’s honeymoon journey of 1935, photos of Doris exploring what would become her lifelong passion: Islamic, especially Mughal, architecture and art. The simple photo of Duke and her husband upon their arrival in Hawaii gives no hint of a life-changing choice she soon would make. The unexpected culmination of that journey was Duke’s personal discovery of Hawaii, a refuge from celebrity life, an opportunity to enjoy privacy and lifetime friendships. She soon purchased 5 acres on Black Point where she and her husband decided to build a home. Here she would create her home and garden, and she spent her lifetime doing so. Duke called it “a Spanish-Moorish-Persian-Indian complex.”

A folio of recently commissioned photos by Tim Street-Porter presents the setting, the gardens, the structures and interiors, the ornaments and decorations. Through them one who may never visit the property can make a personal journey. What brilliance of blues, extravagance of detail, synthesis of style. More photos, most of which were done by David Franzen, offer opportunity for close study of selected objects from Duke’s extensive collection.

Informative and truly interesting essays tell of Duke’ s collecting and commissioning. She learned from scholars and collectors, but the choices were uniquely hers, informed and personal. She participated in the tradition of patronage of the living arts in the Islamic world, commissioning stone, tile, woodwork and textiles from Morocco, Turkey, Iran and India. Photos, drawings, architectural documents and more stories illustrate the evolution of the estate into the 1930’s modernist structure we may visit today. The curators of the traveling exhibition, the editors of the volume, speak of Duke’s ‘inventive synthesis’ of architecture, landscape and art.

Throughout her life Duke built and rebuilt, collected and re-arranged, working to create a more perfect paradise within the garden walls. An often-told story about Persian carpets tells us they are always made with one intended imperfection.

Sharon Littlefield Tomlinson writes about the thoughtful selecting and composing of Duke’s designs. For an installation of tiles by the library doors, Duke was not satisfied by the choices available. She would bring another, a perfect tile, to complete it. She never did return to Shangri La, and the wall remains unfinished.

Throughout her life, the home was Duke’s refuge from the world. Her will opened the home and its collection to the public through the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. “To promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture,” the foundation maintains the estate and its collections. It sponsors programs for scholars and artists-in residence. Voices of six such artists and selections of their work are included in the book and exhibition.

Honolulu is indeed fortunate to be home to The Doris Duke Foundation and to enjoy access to Doris Duke’s private and beautiful world. Now we have a book, which helps us appreciate the hands that made it.

Doris Duke’s Shangri-La: A House in Paradise, Donald Albrecht and Thomas

Mellins, Editors

Skira Rizzoli, 2012

Hardcover, 216 pages, $55.00