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Shangri La Growing Roots in Honolulu

noe tanigawa
Tom Walker. Precipice, 2020. PVC, cecontie, fiberglass, spray paint. In the "8 x 8" exhibition at Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design in Honolulu.

On Oahu, the museum that looks like a palace on Diamond Head, is looking forward to the day people are able to enjoy the city more freely. Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design is preparing to offer different ways to visit the famous grounds

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai’i Public Radio
Hawai’i Public Radio
Brandon Ng. Da Wretched Of Da Earth, 2020. Cyanotype on fabric, photographs, and endemic plants.  In the living room at Shangri La.

  Once through heavy wood doors, the entrance branches, and stairways lead down to an interior garden with fountain.


Shangri La, says it's a museum for learning about the many cultures of Islamic Art in new and inspiring ways.


"In my mind it's about normalizing artistic life as part of the everyday."


Konrad Ng, Executive Director of Shangri La since 2016, is working different angles to connect the museum to this community. Full disclosure: NG is on the board of HPR. At Shangri La,  Renovations underway now will allow self guided or audio experiences in addition to docent led tours.  


"So they would journey through Shangri La but perhaps just stare at the ocean afterward."


Cromwell's. Locals know this surf spot, the rocky outcropping and its enchanting pool. From the water, Shangri La's imposing rock wall rises to lawns and white arches ringed by coconut palms.


"As the only free-standing museum of Islamic art in the United States, I think we have a real moral imperative to advocate for the cultures and peoples whose artworks are represented in our collection,"


Credit Noe Tanigawa
Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Shangri La, Leslee Michelsen with paintings by Kosta Kulundzic. The Dervish I and II. Oil on canvas.

says Leslee Michelsen. She is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Shangri La.  Michelsen has spent her career in the Middle East and Central Asia, most recently at UNESCO Afghanistan. She says Islamic culture is not amonolithinc thing, and all its forms tretch from Qatar to Kuala Lumpur to Detroit. 


"I would argue that what we're actually talking about is Islamic Arts, rather than Islamic Art, because it's not one thing. It's hugely diverse.”


Asking what Islamic Art is now, it involves fabric, metalwork to neon.

How do you communicate this diversity?


"Honestly, I think it's through narratives. I think that's the most powerful way people learn is through stories."


Doris Duke famously followed her own muse for over 60 years selecting items for Shangri La. Michelsen is particularly moved by the lamps, tools, doors, the items of daily use that reflect culture in everyday life. How were they used, what do those objects reveal?


"These are questions I think need to be asked because so much of art history is really informed by the history elitism, and the elite and production for the elite, and it gives us a very skewed notion of history," says Michelsen.


Currently, Shangri La is showing 8 x 8, all Hawai'i artists, in an online exhibition. Eight visual artists, curated by Michelsen, have installations on the grounds. Eight other artists working in Hawai'i present performances on site. 

In his performance, actor, playwright Moses Good challenges Shangri La with its own image as an elite citadel. 


Did you have any problems with Good's performance?


"Not at all," says Michelsen.


Ng welcomes the discourse. 


"Museums have a role to play in preserving the civic fabric of democracy and allowing citizens to imagine what a good and better world could be, what a good and better and just life could be.  Democracy relies on the participation of people to imagine these worlds and put them in forms of creativity."

"Museums have a responsibility as trusted sources of knowledge to invite artists to speak, to put on exhibitions that detail our history and heritage and invite the public in a way that says, You're welcome here. Please learn and ask us more questions." 


Shangri La is closed temporarily, but the 8 x 8exhibition and other resources are available on their website.







Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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