NEW YORK, N.Y. - Shangri La calls to mind a secluded paradise, an exotic place that evokes the mysteries of the ancient Orient.
For the late philanthropist and art collector Doris Duke, her 5-acre retreat in Honolulu was that place. She used the name of the mythical oasis for her earthly slice of Eden on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and filled it with the art and architecture of the Islamic world that enthralled her all her life.
A selection of the artifacts she assembled is being shown for the first time outside the estate at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. "Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art" opened Friday to celebrate the year of her 100th birthday and runs through Jan. 6. It also will travel to North Carolina, where her father was born and where her family made its fortune.
The exhibit is intended to give a wider audience a look at the interplay among Shangri La's modernist 1930s architecture, its oceanside Hawaiian locale and the tobacco heiress' Islamic art collection, said Deborah Pope, director of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which acquired the title to Shangri La after Duke's death.
Duke created the foundation in her will to promote the study and understanding of Islamic culture; Shangri La serves as a centre for Islamic arts and cultures and is open for public tours.
"The ability to be absolutely modern and to seamlessly incorporate Islamic tradition is what makes Shangri La so alive an environment and so relevant today," she said.
Shangri La is a 14,000-square-foot house on a sprawling complex that includes a guesthouse, 75-foot-long saltwater pool, terraces, lawns, gardens and water features. The exhibit features large-scale digital screens of newly commissioned photographs by Tim Street-Porter of its exterior and interior. Many of the objects in the show are seen in the photos as they appear in the elaborately appointed Islamic-inspired rooms and courtyards, giving a wonderful sense of what it must have been like to live among such opulence.
Duke first fell in love with Islamic art and architecture on her honeymoon in 1935. The willowy and beautiful 22-year-old bride and her groom, James Cromwell, travelled throughout the Middle East and South Asia, finishing up in Hawaii where, captivated by its beauty, they decided to build Shangri La.
Duke was raised in a Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan and was the only daughter of tobacco magnate John Buchanan Duke. She was only 12 when she inherited $100 million upon his death, and was quickly dubbed "the richest girl in the world." She shunned publicity all her life, and Shangri La was built in Hawaii in large part so she could avoid the glare of the media. Duke had one daughter who died shortly after birth and adopted an adult woman in the 1980s from whom she became estranged a few years later.
Exhibition co-curator Tom Mellins described Shangri La as an "inventive synthesis" of the traditional and modern. As Duke collected historic works, she commissioned new ones too, from artists in India, Morocco, Iran and Syria, Pope said.
"This juxtaposition of old and new to create an environment, an architectural context in which to display historical works, is what makes Shangri La so unique," she said.
There are about 70 objects in the show. The earliest piece is an exquisite first-millennium gold jug. Other highlights include ceramics and glassware from the 10th to the 20th century, mother-of-pearl 18th-century furniture from Turkey and Syria, a silver pitcher from Kashmir, a Spanish earthenware charger and a pair of 19th-century wood and copper courtyard doors with Arabic calligraphy.
Archival photographs, schematic drawings and an architectural model of the complex also are included.
The exhibition also features new works by six contemporary artists of Islamic descent who were all artists in residence at Shangri La.
"What makes it interesting for our museum is not only the history of the house ... but also the interaction between the artists there and the work they're doing in response to the house," said museum Director Holly Hotchner.
The residency program began in 2004 with one artist and has grown to include two to three a year.
Duke's collecting was personal but she also had a larger goal in mind, said Mellins. She created the Foundation for Islamic Art because she wanted "Americans to understand the art and architecture of that part of the world more fully and deeply than they did," said Mellins.
If You Go...
DORIS DUKE'S SHANGRI-LA: Through Feb. 17, 2013 at Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan; http://www.madmuseu.org or 212-299-7777. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Adults, $15; students and seniors, $12; children 12 and under, free. The exhibition also will travel to the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Fla.; the Nasher Museum at Duke University in Durham, N.C.; the University of Michigan Museum of Art; the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery; the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno; and the Academy of Art in Honolulu.