WHEN you look at a map of the Islamic world, it forms a harmonious geographical entity. From East to West, it is a fairly arid belt stretching from Xinjiang to Mauretania.
The main aberration is a detour that goes down into Southeast Asia. Tropical Islam is something a little out of the mainstream, although with Indonesia having the world’s largest Muslim population, perhaps this should be the default.
Even for those of us who are accustomed to seeing a fully functioning, high-rainfall Islamic backdrop such as Malaysia, it still comes as a huge surprise to encounter the Hawaiian paradise called Shangri La.
It’s back in business after a brief closure, looking as delightfully incongruous as ever.
Hawaii is, like Malaysia, a multicultural paradise in which everything goes peacefully, unless it’s a TV detective show.
The main difference between the two settings on opposite sides of the planet’s mightiest ocean is the form of multiculturalism.
Hawaii is all about the meeting of native religions and Christianity, which only arrived in the 18th century.
Malaysia is quite a different proposition. It seems right that Malaysia has a world-class Islamic-art museum, while Hawaii has a lovely house on the beach that doubles up as a repository of similar material.
Shangri La is still a remarkable place, very much the creation of one individual.
Doris Duke, daughter and only child to one of America’s biggest fortunes, was the unconventional woman who transformed a surf-blessed tropical setting into a serious destination for Islamic-art lovers.
More than that, her favourite winter home features much from Southeast Asia. At the time she was putting her mini-palace together, this was one of the most overlooked areas of collecting.
It can’t be said that Southeast Asian art set the world alight since then either.
Fortunately, at the British Museum’s newish Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, this region has been allowed a presence that didn’t exist before the grand renovation of 2018.
One feature of Southeast Asian art that has consistently created a stir among international collectors — apart from textiles of course — is masks.
At Shangri La, the latest exhibition is on Indonesian masks from Doris Duke’s collection.
Coming from all over Indonesia, they show how masks were not just part of the Hindu Balinese tradition. In fact, some of them look more Malaysian than Indonesian but that’s always a difficult discussion.
More importantly, the masks show the diversity of Duke’s collecting preferences. These items are very distant from the conventional view of “Islamic” art.
The wild-boar mask shown here would have been especially unlikely in a Muslim setting but is still a marvellous expression of woodcarving from a part of the world in which wood is still revered.
Masks were just one of the interests of a collector who was highly individualistic in all areas of her life.
In addition to collecting fur coats (not in Hawaii), wine and husbands, her curiosity about other parts of the world was unusual. A visit to Shangri La shows just how different the billionaire elite was in the mid-20th century.
The other best-known “poor little rich girl” at the time, Barbara Hutton, had a really noteworthy collection of jade although she is better known for marrying seven times.
This was more than Duke but, to show how intertwined their lives were, one husband was married to both heiresses at different times.
OF HOUSE AND MUSEUM
Although Duke and Hutton were born in the same year (1912), their interests differed. The former was less of a party woman and more of a sports enthusiast.
Being in Hawaii, surfing got star billing — not that this stopped her falling for the more aesthetic pleasures of Islamic art.
A lot of her collection is built into the house, so these pieces won’t be travelling unless there’s an earthquake.
Among the treasures that can be appreciated on site is an Ottoman room, complete with ceiling, transported to Hawaii and coping well with the difference in climate between downtown Damascus and the outskirts of Honolulu.
In fact, there are two Ottoman rooms at Shangri La. They both give the full flavour of interior-design excess within the Ottoman Empire.
There are flat and raised painted surfaces along with further embellishment courtesy of metal leaf covered in multi-coloured translucent glazes along with plentiful amounts of gold leaf.
The factor that makes this and Duke’s other similar room so remarkable is her ability to maintain a domestic environment while using different elements from her collection. It somehow remains a house as well as a museum.
The heiress’s biggest tribute to the Islamic world is Shangri La’s Mughal Garden, a scaled-down interpretation of the royal gardens found throughout the Indian subcontinent.
During her 1935 honeymoon travels in India, Doris Duke was exposed to the dazzling gardens of the Mughal era.
As long ago as 1966, an article in Vogue magazine described it as a “miniature version of the famous Mogul gardens at Lahore.” The climate may have been different from Lahore, but Duke was as determined as those Mughal rulers.