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Tents, Tent Panels, and Tented Spaces

Doris Duke (1912–93) became interested in tents and tented spaces early on in her collecting. In the spring of 1938, while in Syria, she commissioned the Damascus-based antiquities firm Asfar & Sarkis to supervise the creation of a canvas tent embellished with colored leather and white parchment (73.22a–j). According to archival correspondence preserved at Duke University, the tent was inspired by examples that Duke and her husband James Cromwell had seen during a visit to Palmyra and was intended to be displayed on the property’s tennis court (no photographs exist to confirm that this installation was ever realized). A few years later, Duke purchased a Persian “Royal Tent” from Hagop Kevorkian, one that may have been included in a recent exhibition of Persian art and appears to have been covered with lavish metallic threads, resulting in considerable weight. Although Duke eventually returned this tent to Kevorkian, she did not abandon her interest in tented spaces. For example, in the Playhouse living room she used plain fabric to create a draped ceiling while printed cottons custom-made in India in the late 1930s constituted the “walls” below. Central Asian suzanis further sheathed the walls while a large Central Asian carpet covered the floor.

Three decades later, in the early 1960s, Duke resolved to renovate her dining room. This project entailed the conversion of a room with a previously aquatic theme—including shell-inspired furniture and built-in aquaria—to one with a more “Islamic” feel. To achieve this transformation, two types of cotton appliqués were mounted upon 453 yards of striped blue fabric once again custom-made in India. The first group consisted of five nineteenth-century Egyptian appliqués in the Mamluk Revival style. This later period of revivalist production in Syria and Egypt is well represented in the DDFIA collection. In fact, the overall design and calligraphic program of the dining room’s Egyptian appliqués can be compared to the relatively contemporary Egyptian front door (64.1b). The dining room’s appliqués may have once been a part of a much larger three-dimensional living space—a tent—such as the c. 1900 example that surfaced at auction in 2001 (see Christie’s lot details) and is reputed to have been used during the 1903 marriage of the daughter of the last Khedive of Egypt. The second group included two nineteenth-century Indian appliqués (83.20.1a-b) with designs echoing perforated screens known as jalis. Duke’s “new” dining room was largely complete by the mid-1960s.

Concurrently, she formalized one of her greatest cultural legacies: she added 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 visionary, singular mandate for the future study and appreciation of Islamic art within her private home.

The dining room's tented interior, with nineteenth-century Egyptian appliqués. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

The dining room's tented interior, with nineteenth-century Egyptian appliqués. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

Block-printed curtains from India framed doorways, walls, and windows in the Playhouse to create the effect of a tented interior, 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Block-printed curtains from India framed doorways, walls, and windows in the Playhouse to create the effect of a tented interior, 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Recommended Citation expand icon

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Textiles and Carpets: Tents, Tent Panels, and Tented Spaces,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.

Further Reading and Resources expand icon

Online:

Marcus Milwright, “Doris Duke and the Crafts of Islamic Syria,” Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art 2 (July 2012).

John Feeney, “Tentmakers of Cairo,” Aramco World Magazine 37, 6 (1996): 16–25.

Print:

Olga Bush, "Relocating to Hawai‘i: Dwelling with Islamic art at Doris Duke's Shangri La." International Journal of Islamic Architecture 3: 2, pp. 437-471, 2014.

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