An earthly retreat, a shrine to art

Works from Doris Duke’s Shangri La estate go on view at Nasher Museum
Aug. 27, 2013 @ 06:59 PM

Shangri La is the earthly paradise James Hilton described in his 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.”

It was published, coincidentally, a few years before tobacco heiress Doris Duke and husband James Cromwell began their 1935 honeymoon and world tour that led to the building of a retreat in Hawaii that took the name Shangri La.

This five-acre Honolulu estate, which overlooks the Pacific, was built as more than just an earthly retreat. During their honeymoon, the couple’s travels took them to Egypt, India, Indonesia and other countries. Duke began collecting Islamic art during that tour and continued until her death in 1993. The honeymoon ended in Honolulu, where the couple decided to build their estate, incorporating Islamic art and style in the architecture.

A new exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art” presents 60 works from the house for the first time in North Carolina. The Nasher is the third stop on a national tour of the exhibit, which began in New York and will end in Honolulu.

The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art organized the exhibit. The foundation gave The Nasher considerable leeway to make the exhibit “Nasher-specific,” said Katie Adkins, Nasher’s assistant curator of exhibitions and curator of this exhibit. The Nasher presents the work in six different galleries, with the goal of giving a sense of the design of Shangri La, and some understanding of Islamic art, Adkins said.

Doris Duke was born in 1912, the only child of James Buchanan (“Buck”) Duke and Nanaline Holt Inman. James Duke died in 1925, leaving his daughter an inheritance of about $80 million to be parceled out during her lifetime, beginning when she turned 21. In her lifetime, Duke supported many causes, among them architectural preservation and medical research. In her will, she funded the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which conducts tours of Shangri La and maintains it as a place for scholars and artists.

She did not keep a diary or leave papers, “so we don’t have that many insights into why she collected Islamic art,” Adkins said. Scholars and art historians, however, do know she was passionate about art and interested in Islamic culture, Adkins said.

The exhibit has works from the 10th to 20th centuries, everything from pottery to silk to paintings. The exhibit has large photographs of Shangri La, a scale model of the estate, architectural drawings, photographs of the construction in the 1930s, and photographs of Duke’s travels. The home and collection were “continually evolving,” and Duke would change the rooms throughout her life, Adkins said. “She had this collection of older Islamic art work, and she commissioned new works for the house. So it’s a coming together of the old and new,” Adkins said.

One of the pieces is a door, dated 1900, of Syrian or Egyptian origin. A verse from the Koran is inscribed on the door: “In houses God permitted to be raised and in which his name is mentioned … Enter them in good health, secure.” Two pieces, one a 19th century Syrian wood chest and another a table (from India or Venice), show the intricate artistry of mother of pearl inlay.

While Islamic art encompasses many styles, it does have some characteristics, among them use of calligraphy and geometric shapes, Adkins said. Viewers can see this influence across several centuries in one of the galleries. A leather devotion book with calligraphy on paper, dated 1481-82, sits in a glass case. On a nearby wall, a 16th-century tile panel also contains calligraphy and a verse of scripture.

In the mid-1960s, Duke renovated the dining room to Shangri La to resemble the interior of a tent. One of the 19th century cotton tent panels, with multiple geometric designs, that Duke used in that renovation is in this exhibit, along with a photo of Duke’s full renovation.

One of the galleries highlights the work of artists who have completed residencies at Shangri La – Afruz Amighi, Zakariya Amataya, Emre Huner, Mohamed Zakariya, Walid Raad and Shahzia Sikander.  


Go and Do

WHAT: “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art”

WHEN: Exhibit opens Thursday and continues through Dec. 29

WHERE: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

ADMISSION: Free for Nasher members, $5 for adults. For information, visit or call 919-684-5135.