The View to an Expanding Horizon

The following is a guest post by Shangri La artist-in-residence Dr. Anita Vallabh.

As I sat on the lanai of the Playhouse, looking at the majesty of the ocean, its constant conversations with the shoreline, I imagined the romance of their nature. Yet each assumes a role true to itself, living its purpose. Having read Kahlil Gibran and Jalaluddin Rumi, I began to visualize the ocean as the lover seemingly seeking the beloved, somehow aware through its tireless efforts that the truth and power it seeks lie in its own depths, where silence reigns.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

In the presence of such magnificence and enchanting beauty, how can one not be conscious of being within a space whose very description captures its ethereal beauty in the words itself? How can one not be true to oneself and create the most honest work of art? How can one not hold a mirror to one’s life? How can one not put their egoist considerations aside, consider their past mistakes and seize the present opportunity to rectify them? How far can the tears be, given the wonders and blessings of our lives? And of the many hardships and pains that taught us the most valuable lessons? How can we not infuse movements that transform everyday gestures and familiar behavior with aesthetic delight?

Going back and forth between art and life…like the resounding waves holding within their depths the silence of life………such is the enchantment of Shangri La.

Shangri La is a much-revered destination for scholars, artists and tourists. In opening its doors to research and researchers in diverse fields, they have built a body of work that enriches not only our understanding of the artifacts housed therein but also recreates the story of times bygone.

When I read Wheeler Thackston’s (scholar in residence, December 3–8, 2010) translations of verses inscribed on some of the artifacts, they suggested to me the spiritual discipline of the artists, and the aesthetic experience that allowed for such exquisite workmanship. These translations and the music of Ghulam Farid Nizami  (who performed at Shangri La in March 2012) provided me with the material for a new choreographic piece in dance. So many resources, so many opportunities made possible because of the dedication, fortitude and single-mindedness to serve the arts. To me, Shangri La represents an enduring legacy of learning.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

It is in this magical space that I was invited to perform. I am deeply humbled by this invitation to create and perform Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions along with my revered kumu, Vicky Holt Takamine, and her very creative son, Jeff Takamine. Vicky truly represents the beauty, grace and dignity of Hawaiian culture. As two artists respectful of each other’s legacies of inherited culture and tradition, we worked for ten days, weaving together, with an unwavering commitment, patterned sequences of movements—sometimes complimentary sometimes opposing—allowing the movements to communicate and flow into one another. There was only the desire to flow with the music and allow our trained bodies to seek the rhythmic patterns, sometimes following the rhythms of the music, sometimes finding the silent space between the rhythms and sometimes chanting over the music.

Each of us looked forward to the process and to the rigors of practice and more practice, and the many ideas and input from every dancer. We shared our cultures, our approaches to learning, and the unique teacher/student relationship. For me, the most memorable moment was watching Jeff choreograph to Indian/Sufi music—the shift in orientation that was required of him. His brilliant mind weaved together movements both graceful and powerful to seamlessly bring together the music and dance. Another unforgettable experience was learning to make a lei. In the short time that I had between practice sessions I tried my hand at slicing through the ti leaves. I was charmed by the aloha spirit that the dancers infused into the lei making process. Later Jeff told me that each dancer was required to make her lei with “good and happy thoughts.”

As the performance date approached, we became more relaxed and confident. The vagaries of the weather caused some anxiety, but time and again Kumu Vicky assured us that the weather Gods would bless the evening and the performance by providing us with the perfect backdrop and lighting.

She could not have been more accurate in her prediction.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Based on this experience, it is my opinion that if two artists from significantly different backgrounds communicate well with each other and practice together they can weave the various elements of their individual artistic traditions around each other. What then evolves is a seamless weave of various threads into a cogent pattern, creating a tapestry of extraordinary cohesiveness.

I take back with me wonderful memories of time shared, of wonderful and inspiring people whose generosity continues to enrich and sustain my artistic life.

Thank you forever.


Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

About the Guest Author: Dr. Anita Vallabh is a Bharatanatyam dancer,
choreographer and teacher from Chennai, India. She was trained in the classical
traditions by Smt. Shanta and Sri. V.P. Dhananjayan. She was the recipient of
the National Award for the Best Dancer (1992-1993) from the National Hindi
Academy, Calcutta, and was conferred the title of “Kala Bharati”. Vallabh
received a Ph.D. from the University of Madras in 2002 and has performed
internationally throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. She is the
Creative Director the Chennai-based Aeka Academy, a holistic performing arts
school established under the auspices of Vaels’ Group Of Institutions.

Ayad Alkadhi Talks About His Experiences as an Artist & Resident at Shangri La

New York-based artist Ayad Alkadhi’s bold and dynamic mixed media paintings are arresting on many levels. He combines Arabic calligraphy, renditions of the human face and figure, political allegories and references to world affairs in ways that are visually stunning and thematically intriguing. A true citizen of the world, Alkadhi was born and raised in Baghdad and spent his childhood between England, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. At the age of 23, after the first Gulf War, Alkadhi left Iraq moving first to Amman, Jordan and later to Auckland, New Zealand. He then moved to his current home, New York City, where he graduated with an MFA from New York University’s ITP Tisch School of The Arts.

I am Baghdad XV, 2013Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
I am Baghdad XV, 2013
Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
Charcoal, acrylic and soil on Arabic Newspaper on Canvas
48″ x 48″ (122cm x 122cm)

Alkadhi had his first Hawai‘i experience as a Shangri La Artist-in-Residence from January 18-30, 2013. As part of his residency in partnership with the Intersections Program at the University of Hawai‘i Department of Art and Art History, Alkadhi conducted studio visits with university graduate and undergraduate students and presented Quest to Belong, a public lecture on his work. Alkadhi also created a painting during his residency which he gifted to Shangri La.

Alkadhi enjoyed working closely with visual arts students at the University of Hawai‘i and explained: “It was a great experience! I was received with great warmth by faculty and students.” His advice for the students whose studios he visited: “Don’t become too bogged down with the technical aspect of the work. Technique is very important but can always be learned and cultivated. Narrative is what is of utmost importance. Telling a story using stick figures can be a satisfying journey.”

While at Shangri La, Alkadhi spoke about his experiences in becoming an artist: “I always wanted to be a visual artist but it was not an option in Iraq in the early 1990s. So, I chose to study engineering and it was a struggle for me. In retrospect there was a benefit as it trained me to use the other side of my brain. Now I can be a pragmatist when I want and in dreamland when I want. Most of the time, I’m somewhere in between.”

Alkadhi’s earlier mixed media art work is characterized by graphic images and references to the political situation in Iraq. As times have changed his work has changed becoming less political and more painterly.  According to the artist: “Since last year, my work has veered away from Islamic narrative and is moving toward more visual themes.  I am letting the work go where it wants to go. I think I have come to a place where the general human condition is more important to me than the Middle East condition, although Middle Eastern references will always be part of my work. For me it’s all about communication. Earlier in my career I wanted to communicate specific ideas. Now I want to communicate emotions.”

Sleeping Beauties2011-2012 Charcoal, acrylic, pen and pencil on Arabic newspaper on canvas72"x 72" - 183 cm x 183 cm
Sleeping Beauties, 2011-2012
Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
Charcoal, acrylic, pen and pencil on Arabic newspaper on canvas
72″x 72″ – 183 cm x 183 cm

His experience at Shangri La surprised him. “I came to Hawai‘i with little expectation, in fact I really didn’t have a set idea of what to expect,” Alkadhi commented. “I think that helped because I was very impressed. I really appreciated that Shangri La is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and dramatic gestures created for establishing a place that is unique, not anywhere else in the world, even in the Middle East.”

As an artist, he was moved by the visual impact of the place and the collections stating: “Shangri La is such an accumulation of visual effects how could one not be influenced? The best moments are the ones where you become one with the place and your senses are heightened.”

His first view of the gardens at Shangri La brought back memories. “From a personal point of view the experience was cathartic,” he shared. “On the day I arrived for the residency, the view from the Mughal Garden brought back memories of my grandfather who passed twenty-three years ago. He was a professor of 10th and 11th century poetry and literature in Baghdad and something about stepping into the Mughal Garden instantly brought him back to me.”

Alkadhi was also intrigued by the narrative he found running through Shangri La as a place: “I would advise future visitors coming to Shangri La to let go of preconceived ideas of what Shangri La will be or do for you. Come and be rewarded by the experience. Each person will react differently. Shangri La is all about the narrative. Doris Duke combined influences from North Africa, India and the Middle East with her own technical and creative paths. In creating Shangri La she told her own original story.”

Ayad Alkadhi in the Syrian Room at Shangri La, January 23, 2013
Ayad Alkadhi in the Syrian Room at Shangri La, January 23, 2013

View more of Ayad Alkadhi’s work on his website: