This tall and elegant wooden tablet is a teaching board from the Islamic areas of Mali. It is inscribed with Arabic script that has faded through time and in accordance with the beautifully weathered surface of the wood. This would have been used by a student learning to form and write Arabic lettering, and would have been a training platform for more advanced calligraphic work.
The Islamicisation of Africa led to considerable social change, which is clearly visible in the construction of modern African societies as well as in their artistic production methods. Islamic law prohibits naturalistic representation, as this is perceived to be a challenge to God’s authority in matters of creation. Islamic artists therefore often employed the “principle of improbability”, by which general forms of animals or humans might be produced, but so far removed from naturalism that they would be permitted. In Africa, however, where traditional religion was intimately tied up with artistic production, this loophole could not be exploited (as the religions themselves were also banned in favour of Islam), and it would also seem that the production of secular objects has suffered from the imposition of Islamic principles as almost all figurative representation (with some exceptions) has vanished in heavily Islamicised areas.
Islamic art therefore often takes inspiration from the written word, and calligraphy is perhaps the art form for which Arabic culture is best known. In all educational establishments controlled by Islam, therefore, there has always been considerable emphasis on teaching the formation of Arabic script, from letter formation, then rising to copying excerpts from the Koran. In areas where paper or parchment were either rare or prohibitively expensive, students would usually use boards such as this to practice on, using ink that could be erased, and permitting the reuse of the board.
This board bears a large excerpt from what is probably the Koran, which has gradually faded with te passage of time and repeated reuse of the wood. It is a fairly large piece, and would probably have been kept or stored at a centralised school or other place of learning. It has acquired a beautiful use patina and a softly graceful outline. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, it is a disarming glimpse into secular private life and the ardours of scholastic endeavour, as well as being symbolic of the fusion of African and Islamic cultures. This is an interesting, decorative and attractive object.