The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Conversation on Khatamkari

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guides Susan Berg and Miki Yamashiro.

Susan Berg: Hey Miki, Shangri La guides were asked to do a blog on one of their favorite pieces at Shangri La. Want to try?

Miki Yamashiro: Sue Berg, what are you getting me into now? But sure, there are so many things I love about Shangri La—how do we pick just one?

Sue: What in the collection really draws your attention?

The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

Miki: I love all the “wow” pieces on the tour, of course, but I also love finding hidden gems in the more subtle pieces, for instance, the khatamkari doors (64.48.1 and 64.48.2) in the living room.

Door (64.48.1). Iran (Tehran), dated 1228 A.H. (1813 A.D.) Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2009.)
Door (64.48.1). Iran (Tehran), dated 1228 A.H. (1813 A.D.) Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2009.)

Sue: That’s very thoughtful. I never thought about the “subtlety.” What has drawn me to the khatamkari doors is the harmonious design, the intricacy of the technique, and the almost sensual nuance in the poetry of Hafez.

Miki: We studied Hafez in our Persian literature class. He was the famous 14th-century poet, known for his beautiful mystic poetry. Books of poetry by Hafez are found in most Iranian homes. Poems are memorized and used as proverbs or sayings to this day.

Sue: I often wonder if Doris Duke was enchanted by Persian poetry…

Miki: What do you share with guests about Hafez’s poetry on the doors?

Sue: I point out the exquisite calligraphy. What the doors say to the guests through the poetry is, “Shine light on our dark abode. Perfume…our…minds.”

Miki: Ooh, that gives me chills! You can find a full translation of the poetry on the doors in former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston’s working paper.

Sue: I’m curious. Why do these doors appeal to you?

Miki: For so many reasons. First, they may not be the most colorful pieces in the collection but I am naturally drawn to “shibumi,” a Japanese concept that embodies “understated elegance.” Also, the extremely intricate geometric symmetry is appealing to the eye and mind. I also like the fact that such artistry and craftsmanship were invested in a functional piece, like a door.

Door (64.48.2). Iran (Tehran), dated 1228 A.H. (1813 A.D.) Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2003.)
Door (64.48.2). Iran (Tehran), dated 1228 A.H. (1813 A.D.) Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2003.)

Sue: The khatamkari technique has been in existence for over 700 years in Iran and is still a significant part of Iran’s artistic heritage. It’s so elaborate. I’ve read that there can be up to 250 pieces of metal, bone, ivory, and wood bundled in each cubic centimeter of space. Remember that video we saw during training on how khatamkari is created?

Miki: We know that these doors were made in 1813 in Tehran. The name of the person who commissioned the doors was Sir Gore Ouseley, the first British ambassador to the Royal Court of Iran. But Sue, why do these doors appeal to you?

Sue: I love the complexity and harmony of the design. I also love the fact that Hafez’s poetry is on these doors, and in the poem, he says, “After indulging in revelry and dalliance with beauties, of all the things you do, memorize the poetry of Hafez.”

It certainly appears that Doris Duke was enchanted with Persian art, architecture and literature.

Sue & Miki: Shangri La is like an onion, with a multitude of wonderful layers and treasures to explore and discover. For us, the khatamkari doors inspire awe and delight the eye. They spark the imagination of the guests and significantly enhance their Shangri La experience. It’s our hope that looking more closely at the khatamkari doors will inspire us to notice other khatamkari objects in the collection.

Shangri La guides Susan Berg and Miki Yamashiro.
Shangri La guides Susan Berg and Miki Yamashiro.

About the Guest Authors:

Susan Berg is a lifelong learner and teacher! Her background is education, education program design and development, and educational fund development. She served as the State’s Director, Governor’s Council on Literacy and Lifelong Learning. Being an interpretive guide at Shangri La led Sue to become a student of Persian literature at the University of Hawai’i.

Born in Japan and raised in Los Angeles, Miki Yamashiro has worked in Tokyo, London, and New York in international banking and executive search. More recently, she has transitioned to work that she is truly passionate about: subtitling Japanese films, translating manga, and giving tours in English and Japanese at Shangri La, where she has been an interpretive guide since 2013.

3 comments

  1. Miki- I greatly enjoyed my visit to Shangri La last Friday! Your knowledge and enthusiasm about all of the extraordinary Islamic Art throughout the tour made it the highlight of many recent visits to Honolulu. I wanted to share the name or the book we spoke about as historical fiction and the building of the Taj Mahal. It is titled “Beneath a Marble Sky” by John Shors. It is available on Amazon. I plan to read it again as I am traveling to India in October. I hope you enjoy this little gem as much as I did!
    Thanks again for a most memorable visit to Doris Duke’s Shangri La!

  2. Dear Sue and Miki,

    This is wonderful. Thanks a lot for the information you provided about Khatamkari, Hafez, and Persian poetry. Your enthusiasm and passion in Persian art and literature are amazing.

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