Dining Room, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The dining room is Doris Duke’s (1912–93) interpretation of an Islamic-style tent. At certain times and in certain places, tents were a key component of Islamic palatial architecture, particularly when rulers and their administrators lived itinerant lifestyles based on seasonal migration and/or warfare. For example, the Mongols who conquered Iran in the thirteenth century spent winters in Mesopotamia (Baghdad) and summers in northwestern Iran at palaces like Takht-i Suleyman; their descendants, the Mughal emperors of India, migrated between cities such as Lahore, Delhi and Agra; and Ottoman rulers, particularly of the sixteenth century, were regularly on the move due to constant military engagement. Islamic royal tents were known to have been particularly luxurious, and their “walls” showcased a range of textiles in various media such as cotton, silk and gold, and techniques like embroidery, applique and brocade. Individual tent panels often featured arches (83.13a-b), which, placed side by side, would create transitory versions of the permanent arcades found in buildings.

In the early 1960s, Duke decided to transform her aquatic-inspired dining room, featuring shell-motif furniture and built-in aquaria, into an interior with a more “Islamic” feel. In order to enclose the room in a tent, 453 yards of striped blue fabric were custom-made in India and then draped from the ceiling and walls. The south and west “walls” of the tent were further embellished with two types of appliqués. The first group consisted of five nineteenth-century Egyptian appliqués in the Mamluk Revival style, which may have once been part of a tent (see an example recently at auction). The second group included two nineteenth-century Indian appliqués with designs echoing jalis, a form well-known to Duke from her 1935 India commission. Depending on Duke’s preferences, the south and west fabric walls could be rolled up or lowered; the former affording an unobstructed view of the ocean and Diamond Head, the latter resulting in a dark, intimate space. For the north wall, Duke recreated an Ottoman-style fireplace with adjacent side niches, in which she displayed medieval Persian ceramics, particularly those in the lajvardina technique (48.408). For the adjacent east wall, a custom-made Iranian mosaic panel (48.407) previously located on the façade of the stairway leading to the games area was moved indoors.

Like the tents of the imperial Islamic world, the dining room at Shangri La is a palatial space filled with rich furnishings. The most luxurious element is a Baccarat chandelier (47.134) made for export to India (notice the red and green color scheme) and once in the collection of the Salar Jung, the prime minister of Hyderabad. The low-lying table below is comprised of a Hawaiian-made tabletop resting on four cast copper alloy Indian legs. Today, its surface displays a range of Islamic artworks used for routine daily activities such as lighting a room, washing one’s hands, serving food, or pouring water. These vessels exemplify an important tradition in Islamic art: the elevation of functional domestic objects to exquisite works of art. The surfaces of some are covered with calligraphy (Greek: beautiful writing) that “speaks” to their beauty or function. The gilded inscriptions on a Qajar Iranian ewer (52.8) read, “This ewer is completely full of gold and jewels; It is worthy of the presences of the grandees of the country,” while those on a Safavid Iranian candlestick (54.100) are borrowed from a well-known Persian poem about a moth being attracted to a flame, like a lover to the beloved. Marks of ownership further convey the high esteem once afforded to objects. A late nineteenth-century Ottoman silver tureen (57.218a–b), for example, bears the name of a noble lady. Finally, an aquamanile in the form of a cat (48.183) demonstrates how the sculpting and painting of living beings was, at certain times and in certain places, very common in Islamic art. Incense burners, flasks, containers, and lamps were often made in the forms of birds and animals (see additional examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The dining room as it appears today was completed in the mid-1960s. Concurrently, Duke formalized one of her greatest cultural legacies: the second codicil to her will, which stipulated the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in order “to promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture.” Duke’s interest in tents and tented spaces therefore culminated in the creation of her explicit mandate for the future study and appreciation of Islamic art within her home.

Mihrab Room
The Mihrab Room preserves a number of masterpieces in the DDFIA collection, particularly architectural tilework produced during the Ilkhanid period (1226–1353).

The Mihrab Room preserves a number of masterpieces in the DDFIA collection, particularly architectural tilework produced during the Ilkhanid period (1226–1353), during which time Greater Iran was ruled by an “Il khan” (lesser khan) subservient to the Great Khan of the formidable Mongol empire (in China: the Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368). The room’s entrance is framed by a stucco spandrel and soaring wood doors custom-made in Morocco in 1937. Behind this arched space is the wall that marks the eastern terminus of the main house’s publicly accessible rooms. Early on in Shangri La’s history, this important space was home to a sculpture of Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva. Shortly thereafter, the sculpture was replaced by the masterpiece of the DDFIA collection: a luster mihrab (architectural niche) dated 663/1265 and signed by its maker ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir (48.327). This mihrab was originally located in the shrine of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin, Iran, and was acquired from Hagop Kevorkian (1872–1962) in 1940. It is a masterpiece of the luster ceramic technique, a dual-firing process in which metallic oxides are applied over an already fired glazed surface. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, luster production flourished in Kashan, Iran, and four generations of potters from the Abi Tahir family were renowned masters of the technique.

Visitors first encounter the mihrab from the far (west) end of the living room, where they see its glittering surfaces beautifully framed by custom-made Moroccan elements. They walk from the bright and open space of the living room towards the dimly lit and far smaller Mihrab Room. In some ways, this experience echoes the transition from an Ilkhanid tomb’s sunlit courtyard to the dark, intimate spaces of its sanctuary, where a mihrab would orient prayer towards Mecca. Looking at the mihrab up close, one can appreciate a hallmark of Islamic art: calligraphy, or beautiful writing. The mihrab’s entire surface is covered in Qur’anic verses rendered in a variety of scripts, from large, angular ones to small, cursive ones. One of these verses is the Throne Verse (2:256):

Allah! There is no God but He,
The Living, the Self-Subsisting, the Eternal
No Slumber can seize Him, nor sleep
All things in heaven and earth are His…

Once in the Mihrab Room, visitors encounter additional ceramic arts of Iran’s pre-Mongol (c. 1180–1220) and Mongol (c. 1220–1310) periods. To the left of the mihrab is a set of 10 luster tiles (48.347) inscribed with Qur’anic verses that would have originally formed an inscription frieze in an Ilkhanid tomb or mosque. The final tile (lower left) is signed by Yusuf, the son of the potter (‘Ali ibn Muhammad) who made the adjacent mihrab (48.327). In the middle of the wall preserving the set of 10 tiles is a three-part luster tomb cover (48.348), which would have originally formed the upper surface of a large cenotaph marking the burial place of the deceased. Like the mihrab, it too is covered in Qur’anic verses, and its inscription further reveals that it was made for the tomb of a daughter of Imam Ja‘far (d. 765), the sixth Shi‘ite imam (the branch of Shi‘ism practiced in Iran is Twelver Shi‘ism, in which twelve imams are venerated). In Iran, the buildings that entomb descendants of imams are known as imamzadehs. Between the tomb cover and Veramin mihrab, the Mihrab Room preserves two examples of tile ensembles from known Ilkhanid imamzadehs. Further, between the Veramin mihrab and set of 10 tiles, it represents two of four generations of production by the Abi Tahir family.

Additional Ilkhanid tilework in the Mihrab Room includes a pair of square luster tiles with verses from Iran’s national epic, the Shahnama (48.346.1-2). These tiles were originally part of an ensemble numbering approximately 30 tiles and are of the type associated with Takht-i Suleyman, a summer palace in northwestern Iran built for the Mongol ruler Abaka (r. 1265–82). The reverse of the arch leading into the Mihrab Room, as well as its jambs, are covered in alternating star and cross tiles. This combination of tile shapes was ubiquitous in Ilkhanid buildings, and such tilework often covered the dado (lower portion) of walls. The star tiles are all luster and many are painted with figures and animals, among them phoenixes and dragons, which demonstrate the influence of Chinese art on Ilkhanid Persian art. Virtually all of the star tiles have inscription borders—typically verses from the Qur’an (Arabic) or Shahnama (Persian).

Portable furnishings in the Mihrab Room are not limited to religious objects. While the lighting devices—hanging enameled glass lamps and brass candlesticks—are of the type common to religious buildings like mosques and shrines, the ceramics on view in the wall vitrines are products of a secularly courtly culture. One of the vitrines displays Doris Duke’s (1912–93) collection of mina’i wares, which were made in Iran just prior to the Mongol invasions of the 1220s. The polychromatic surfaces of these twice-fired pots include courtly scenes such as hunting, feasting, musical entertainment, and rulers enthroned. These vessels confirm the prevalence of figural imagery in Islamic art, particularly in palatial contexts.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
Shangri La is a museum for Islamic arts and cultures, offering guided tours, residencies for scholars and artists, and programs with the purpose of improving understanding of the Islamic world. Built in 1937 as the Honolulu home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993), Shangri La was inspired by Duke’s extensive travels throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and reflects architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco and Syria.

Islamic Art
The phrase “Islamic art” generally refers to arts that are products of the Muslim world, diverse cultures that historically extended from Spain to Southeast Asia. Beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) and continuing to the present day, Islamic art has both a wide historical range and broad geographical spread, including North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and part of South and Southeast Asia as well as eastern and sub-Saharan Africa.

Visual Elements of Islamic Art. Islamic art covers a wide range of artistic production, from ceramic pots and silk carpets to oil paintings and tiled mosques. Given the tremendous diversity of Islamic art – across many centuries, cultures, dynasties and vast geography – what artistic elements are shared? Often, calligraphy (beautiful writing), geometry, and floral/vegetal design are seen as unifying visual components of Islamic art.

Calligraphy. The preeminence of writing in Islamic culture stems from the oral transmission of the word of God (Allah) to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century. This divine revelation was subsequently codified into a holy book written in Arabic, the Qur’an (recitation in Arabic). Beautiful writing became imperative for transcribing the word of God and for creating sacred Qur’ans. Calligraphy soon appeared in other forms of artistic production, including illuminated manuscripts, architecture, portable objects and textiles. Although the Arabic script is the crux of Islamic calligraphy, it was (and is) used to write a number of languages in addition to Arabic, including Persian, Urdu, Malay and Ottoman Turkish.

The content of the writing found on Islamic art varies according to context and function; it can include verses from the Qur’an (always Arabic) or from well-known poems (often Persian), the date of production, the signature of the artist, the names or marks of owners, the institution to which an object was presented as a charitable gift (waqf), praises to the ruler, and praises to the object itself. Calligraphy is also written in different scripts, somewhat analogous to type fonts or today’s computer fonts, and the most renowned artists in the Islamic tradition were those who invented, and excelled in, various scripts.

Geometry and Floral Design. In many examples of Islamic art, calligraphy is superimposed upon backgrounds covered in geometric patterns, floral motifs, and/or vegetal designs with curved leaf forms known as “arabesques.” The appearance of this surface decoration differs according to where and when an object was made; the forms of flowers in seventeenth-century Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran are quite different, for example. In addition, certain designs were favored in some places more than others; in North Africa and Egypt, bold geometry is often preferred over delicate floral patterns.

The Figure. Perhaps the least understood visual component of Islamic art is the figural image. Although the Qur’an prohibits the worship of images (idolatry)—a proscription stemming from the rise of Islam within a polytheistic tribal society in Mecca—it does not explicitly preclude the depiction of living beings. However, figural imagery is generally confined to secular architectural contexts—such as the palace or private home (rather than the mosque)—and the Qur’an is never illustrated.

Some of the earliest palaces in Islamic history include life-size frescoes of animals and human beings, and by the tenth century, figures were standard iconography on ceramic vessels, including the earliest luster examples made in Iraq (see example) and later those made in Kashan, Iran. During the medieval period, human figures in miniature scale became integral to the illustration of religious, historical, medical and poetic texts.

Note on Dates. The Islamic calendar begins in 622 CE, the year of the emigration (hijra) of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Dates are presented as follows: 663 of the Hijra (AH), 1265 of the Common Era (CE), or simply 663/1265.

Diversity and Variety. First-time viewers of Islamic art are often captivated by its technical sophistication and beauty. Blown glass, illuminated manuscripts, inlaid metalwork, and soaring tiled domes astound through their color, forms, and details. Not all examples of Islamic art are equally luxurious, however, and a number of circumstances contribute to the diversity and variety encompassed under the broad term “Islamic art.”

The wealth of the patron is a critical factor, and functional objects for everyday use—basins for washing, chests for storing, candlesticks for lighting, carpets for covering—can differ significantly depending on whether they were made for a king, a merchant, or a peasant. The quality of a work of art is equally tied to its maker, and while the majority of Islamic art is anonymous, a number of master artists signed their works, desiring to be credited for their achievements, and indeed remain well known. Finally, the availability of raw materials also determines the look of an Islamic work of art. Due to the vast topography of the Islamic world (deserts, mountains, tropics), strong regional characteristics can be identified. Brick buildings clad with ceramic tiles are common to Iran and Central Asia, whereas sandstone and marble architecture is ubiquitous in India.

The regional—and by extension, linguistic—origins of a work of art also determines its appearance. Scholars and museums often deconstruct the broad term “Islamic art” into sub-fields such as the Arab lands, Persian world, the Indian subcontinent and other regions or by dynasty. The presentation of Islamic art in museums is often further segmented into dynastic production (example), which results in an emphasis on courtly production and patronage of the highest quality (example).

Status of the Field. The field of Islamic art history is currently experiencing a period of self-reflection and revision. Publicly, this is most evident in a number of major museum reinstallations (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, Brooklyn Museum, David Collection) that have transpired over the last decade and some of which are still in progress. Of central concern is the validity of the phrase “Islamic Art” to describe the visual culture in question. Some curators and scholars have rejected this religious designation in favor of regional specificity (consider the new name of the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and have criticized its monolithic, Eurocentric, and religion-based origins. Indeed, although some examples of Islamic art and architecture were made for religious purposes (a Qur’an for recitation in a mosque), others served secular needs (a window to decorate a home). Moreover, there are many examples of non-Muslims creating works of art categorized as “Islamic,” or even “Islamic” works of art created for non-Muslim patrons. These realities acknowledged, some scholars and institutions have opted to stress the Islam component of “Islamic art” (consider the name of the Louvre’s renovated galleries, “Arts of Islam,” that reopened in the fall of 2012).

The collection of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), and its presentation at Shangri La, has much to contribute to these ongoing global dialogues. At a moment when the designation “Islamic art” is being fiercely debated, the DDFIA collection challenges existing taxonomies (ethnographic artifact versus fine art; secular versus religious; central versus periphery), while stimulating new ways of thinking about, defining and appreciating the visual culture.