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A Vision of Shangri La

A Vision of Shangri La

Doris Duke's private collection of Islamic art comes to the Nasher Museum Aug. 29

August 23, 2013 |
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Uzbekistani, Suzani, late 19th or early 20th century. Cotton and silk threads.

Some art lovers build a home for the art they collect. Others collect art to fill a home.

Heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke did neither -- and both. Inspired by the Taj Mahal during a honeymoon trip around the world, and drawn to the beauty and seclusion of Hawai'i, she built a sprawling, oceanfront estate in Honolulu and spent five decades perfecting it as a wonderland of Islamic art.

Now some of that wonderland of art is making its way to Duke for the Nasher Museum's new exhibition, "Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art," opening Thursday, Aug. 29.

Not only will the exhibit showcase one of the world's great private collections of Islamic art, but it will mark a further connection between the university and its founding family.

Doris Duke did not simply hang art on the walls of Shangri La; rather, she transformed the walls, ceilings, floors, doorways and entire rooms into installations of art. She began collecting Islamic art during a 10-month honeymoon trip around the world in 1935 to Egypt, India (where she was inspired by the Taj Mahal), Indonesia, China, Japan and Hawai'i.

doris duke's shangri la

Paradise with a Purpose

The Nasher Museum has launched a new website to accompany the Shangri La exhibit.

The website includes video, pictures and text to explore the origins of the collection, her interest in Islamic art, and the role the art plays in Islamic culture.

To visit the website, click here.


She hand-picked Islamic textiles, ceramics, paintings, jewelry, furniture, architectural elements, all for Shangri La. The objects came from Egypt, India, Iran, Morocco, Spain, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan, dating from as early as the first millennium B.C., but mostly created between the 10th and 20th centuries. Architectural elements from 18th- and 19th-century Damascus residences were shipped and reinstalled with new components to create the Syrian Room at Shangri La. The 60 works in the exhibition are on view in North Carolina for the first time.

"Doris Duke was ahead of her time, with an eye for art that was not well known in the Western world," said Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. "She built a magnificent, far-away estate, transforming walls, ceilings, doorways, entire rooms with art and architectural details imported from the Islamic world. Before, you had to travel to Honolulu to see it; this exhibition brings Shangri La and its dazzling collection to us."

"Doris Duke's Shangri La" is organized in six galleries to invoke the rooms of a home, placing the works of art within the context of Doris Duke's modernist palace. Architectural drawings, large-scale color photographs of the estate and an architectural model, as well as photographs and videos of Shangri La during its construction in the 1930s, are also on view to help tell the story.

The exhibition also includes works by eight contemporary artists invited for residencies at Shangri La.

Free programs that complement the Nasher exhibition include a panel discussion on Islamic art, religion and history Sept. 26; a free Eid al-Adha celebration and artist talk by calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya Oct. 17; the annual Semans Lecture by Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Oct. 24; an artist talk by Shahzia Sikander Nov. 14; an "Art with the Experts" talk at the Southwest branch of Durham County Library; Family Day events; K-12 teacher workshops; films, book discussions and more. Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor, master of Persian music, will give a ticketed performance Nov. 21, co-sponsored by Duke Performances.

A related installation, "Doris Duke: A Life Well Traveled," opens Oct. 19 in the museum's Education Gallery, including photographs and documents from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University's Doris Duke archives. It will be on view through Feb. 2, 2014.


"Doris Duke's Shangri La" is organized by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which is also providing support for its presentation at the Nasher Museum and national tour. Additional support for the exhibition's presentation is provided by an anonymous donor, Graduate Liberal Studies at Duke University, and the Duke Islamic Studies Center.                 

Entry Doorway Translation by Dr. Wheeler Thackston, Scholar in Residence at Shangri La from Shangri La Hawaii on Vimeo.

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