Doris Duke, heiress to the American Tobacco Company fortune, built a sprawling estate in Hawaii in the 1930s. She named her secluded getaway Shangri La and she spent the rest of her life filling it with Islamic art. After her death, Shangri La was opened to the public.
Beginning Thursday, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University will host an exhibition of the art from Shangri La.
Doris Duke began the collection during her 10-month Honeymoon trip through North Africa, the Middle East, India, and ending in Hawaii.
"The house is a 1930s, early Modernist house with all this overlay with Islamic art and architectural ornament that she applied. It houses nearly 60 years of her collecting and installing," said Deborah Pope, executive director of Shangri La, in an interview on The State of Things.
Orientalism was in vogue in America during the 1920s and 1930s, the period in which Doris Duke started collecting Islamic art. World fairs, colonial projects, circuses, and movies like "The Sheik" starring Rudolph Valentino brought about a pop cultural fascination with Islamic art and culture.
"Wealthy men in particular were putting together huge collections. There was of course the Freer and Sackler museums [that] emerged out of private Islamic art collections. So [Duke] was not the only one, but unusual because she was the only woman we know of to have such an impressive collection," said Miriam Cooke, Arab culture professor at Duke University.
The exhibition “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art" previously showed in New York and Florida. It marks the first time that Duke's Islamic art collection has exhibited outside of her home in Hawaii, which was turned into a museum after her death.
"It will be an entry point, a window of opportunity to see Islamic theology, Muslim history, and Muslim engagement with the West. I think in many ways providentially Doris Duke prepared this for post-9/11 American society, " said Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University.
He continued, "It's no secret that neither Muslims in the United States nor America at large were ready with the 9/11 and post-9/11 challenges it brought. Since then it has been a homework and a struggle for Americans to understand Islam as a religion and Muslims as people."
As much as the Shangri La exhibition provides a different the usual news narrative Islamic culture, it is also an opportunity to give a different spin on the life of Doris Duke. Duke died in 1993 at the age of 81, and during her lifetime, she was notoriously media shy and famous. Newspapers focused on stories of her wealth and love affairs, whereas this exhibition puts her philanthropy and aesthetic sensibility in the spotlight.
"The narrative about Doris Duke was based on limited information about her. She was fiercely private. She did not grant interviews. She did not correct incorrect information that was printed about her. So she has a reputation as a bit of a recluse," said Bridget Booher, Duke Magazine associate editor.