I went out with my girlfriend to the Museum of Arts and Design today. She suggested an exhibition at the museum (of whose existence I sheepishly admitted ignorance) called “Doris Duke’s Shangri La,” which showcased the fabulously wealthy heiress’ sizable collection of Islamic art from her similarly-themed estate in Honolulu.
The exhibition occupies a single floor of MAD’s exhibition space, and contains a sweeping selection of embroideries, jewelry, furniture, clothing, tableware, family photos, video, and accessories. Also present are new large-scale photographs of the estate—named “Shangri La” —as well as architectural drawings of the grounds. Topping it off are a handful of artworks by contemporary artists who drew inspiration from the collection. All in all it’s an exhibition that feels very complete, offering broad strokes of history, personal stories, architecture, and modern relevance.
Shangri La contains a good wealth of work, some of it already centuries old by the time it made it into Duke’s possession. Embroideries, rugs, basins, lamps, and chairs alike are at the high level of intricacy and geometric precision typical of the Muslim Middle Eastern region. The historical pieces vary in condition; the loss of color on some pieces is due the fact that Duke actively used her wares, rather than preserve them outright (obviously; she lived there, after all). That aside, Duke apparently had a discerning eye for individual pieces, though her broad interest led to some awkward room compositions. Some of the rooms in Shangri-La are outright garish, with pale pink and brown tiles set against loud green, red, and yellow lights, with brass and silverware from various eras decorating the shelves. Not that there’s anything wrong with collage, but some rooms feel unsettled: it’s clear what inspired the room, but some of the pieces just aren’t quite “right.” On the other hand, rooms like Duke’s personal washroom, are more beautiful for their necessary simplicity. This is in no small part due to the greater percentage of Western-designed motifs.
The architectural drawings and interior designs were some of my favorite pieces, if only for the draftsmanship. Like the studies of 19th Century draftsmen (or “draughtsmen,” if you want to be cool) they’re a mix of photo-realistic rendering and freehand line. I always think it’s fun seeing scribbles turn into something that looks like no human touched it at all.
Overall, the show was satisfying and definitely worth the visit. MAD also has ongoing exhibitions which are easy to see in a single visit. Be sure to check out their open studio spaces, where you can watch and talk with resident artists as they create their new works. When my girlfriend and I visited, we were warmly greeted by Derek Haffar, whose sculpture explores the contrast between wholeness and empty space. There’s a whole dialogue on “seeing beneath the surface” and “filling in the gaps” that I could go into, but won’t. It’s best to see it yourself.
“Doris Duke’s Shangri La” runs at the Museum of Arts and Design through February 17, 2013.