Try to picture “Shangri-La” and your mind might conjure up an Orientalist fantasy, a syncretic world, folding all the cultural distinctions that characterize diverse nations into a single category.
In the Shangri-La, a Hawaii-based center for the arts in the former home of American heiress Doris Duke, this is the resplendent world that spectators are drawn into, one that takes artifacts from India, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, and beyond and neatly bundles them under the banner of Islamic Arts. Ornate wooden furniture from Iran, colorful wall rugs from Uzbekistan, and painted earthenware from Spain—the items on display evoke vaguely exotic but decidedly distant lands.
A selection of Doris Duke’s carefully curated possessions, collected from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asian subcontinent have been packaged into a traveling exhibit that began showing in Los Angeles this past weekend. But the exhibition arrived with a companion show, located right across the hall from Shangri-La. Titled “Shangri La: Imagined Cities” and overseen by Iraqi art curator Rijin Sahakian, the exhibit represents a stark contrast to Doris Duke’s exoticist, depoliticized visions of the Orient. Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji’s To My Brother features inkless etchings of his brother’s wedding photos. An Israeli sniper killed Batniji’s brother just two years after the happy photos were taken. In another room, George Awde’s photos of Syrian workers in Lebanon explore themes of masculinity and manual labor. Presented alongside Doris Duke’s extravagant furniture and curiosities, these pieces flesh out historical narratives that are considerably more nuanced and politically charged.
Both the Doris Duke exhibit and Imagined Cities were funded through the LA/Islam Arts Initiative, a citywide program that fosters cross-cultural understanding by bringing art from majority-Muslim countries to Los Angeles. Iran-born artistAmitis Motevalli is the director of the initiative, recruiting organizations and institutions all around the city to present work that falls within this category. When she was brought on to help present the Doris Duke exhibition in L.A., Motevalli enlisted the skills of Sahakian, who is currently based in Beirut. Together, the two have helmed a jam-packed, season-long program that challenges the very notion of Islamic arts—or, at least, broadens the category to a point where the antiquated concept’s irrelevance becomes clear. The dichotomous presentation of the combined Shangri-La exhibits is part of an effort to problematize Islamic Arts as a formal classification. “[We need to question] what people call ‘Islamic art.’ Many of the people who fall under the umbrella of Islamic art a lot of the times are not even Muslim,” says Motevalli.
For the next two months, the LA/Islam Arts Initiative will be holding events at art and culture institutions all across the city, showcasing multidisciplinary arts from all over the world. Film students at Cal State Long Beach have been hosting a film series that included Rola Nashef’s Detroit Unleaded, about an Arab-American-owned gas station in Detroit. Early next month, the Chinese American Museum will host a dinner of Chinese Islamic cuisine, a lamb-heavy variety of Chinese food that is quite different from the fare you might get at your usual take-out spot. These exhibitions are defined not by Islam itself, but by the experiences of Muslims or people from Muslim-majority countries. But they all invoke histories that are otherwise excluded from other exhibitions of Islamic art.
“We need to be able to do away with these definitions when they don’t make sense anymore,” says Sahakian.