This arch-shaped wooden tablet is a teaching board from the Islamic areas of Mali. It is inscribed with thirteen horizontal lines of Arabic on one side, and has evidently been used and reused over a considerable period of time. 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, carefully written in two sections on one side of the board only. It is rare in terms of size, and was therefore an easily portable object. 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 slow fusion of African and Islamic cultures. This is an interesting, decorative and attractive object.