Upon entering the current temporary exhibit at UMMA, my boyfriend and I said, “This is bullcrap!” Really, it’s an exhibit about Doris Duke, American heiress, once described as “the richest girl in the world,” who settled in Honolulu with her husband and built an estate she called Shangri La. This is Disney on crack cosponsored by Elle, Decor, and Playboy.
Yet the concept and home are stunning. If I had an afternoon to waste fantasizing about my dream home, this would probably be it. The architecture, design, furnishings, and objets d’art–so exotic and lavish and built overlooking the Pacific Ocean, near Diamond Head, with a pool and high dive (for crying out loud!)–are all too much.
The exhibit showcases Shangri La through photographs, video, and artifacts. There’s a mysterious and striking clarity to the newly commissioned photos by Tim Street-Porter, with their artificially constructed shadows. Looking at them is like looking through a window; you really feel like you’re there. Screens constructed from fabric, carved wood, and marble are everywhere in the home, including motorized wall panels in the living room that can be raised to reveal views of the Pacific (a particularly telling piece of Duke’s artistic aesthetic). I’m struck by the richness and imagination of this extensive and very personal collection.
Shangri La is now the home of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and supports Islamic art through its Artist-in-Residence program. The juxtaposition of their work with the material from Shangri La is captivating. The common theme in the contemporary works is the exploration of cultural and political identities and boundaries. I’m not sure what this has to do with the travels and art collecting ambitions of an early twentieth-century American heiress, but it works: I found the combination enthralling, my mind wandering from the perspective of a wealthy American world traveler and art collector to that of a modern working artist from “foreign” lands. Both avenues of imagination feed off each other to create a larger view of the relationships between artist, content, and context.
Former Shangri La artist-in-residence Shahzia Sikander’s complex, colorful ink drawings are remarkable on their own but truly impressive in massive projection against the panorama (and history) of Shangri La. Also notable are the two pieces by Afruz Amighi: a textile screen made of woven plastic materials with light reflecting the design on the wall behind and lovely translucent lantern sculptures. Beautiful, intricate, and (to this eye) very evocative of Islamic art, both fit into the aesthetic of the estate effortlessly. Amighi describes the sculptures as a commentary on the numerous bomb-�xADbuilding military installations in Hawaii. I didn’t see that initially, but my blindness draws my attention to the ways the growing bomb-building industry is largely unacknowledged and unseen.
In a show mainly devoted to the personal taste of one woman, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. See it for yourself before May 4.