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The Secret of Amohamed's Church Murals

Updated on May 19, 2016
Detail From the Mural
Detail From the Mural | Source

Folk Art in the Giotto Fresco Style

Charleston, South Carolina is a beautiful city. If you come in the spring, you'll find warm, balmy weather. The sun drapes over and warms the tents and stands in the downtown markets. Time spent outdoors is balmy, bright and cheerful.

This backdrop of community and beautiful architecture was the impetus for the start of the Spoleto Festival in 1977. The dozens of churches and the many theaters were perfect for a multi-day event that highlighted both professional performances and workshop opportunities for performing students.

Originally the festival was in tandem with a similar festival in Spolito, Italy; thus the name. All over the city are performances of dance, classical music, jazz, theater and opera within historic churches and theaters.

Special Note: all photos by author - drawings and other materials owned by author - all rights reserved for the distribution of these photos and must be credited appropriately

The Artist

| Source

Who was Amohamed Milai?

The highlight for me on the trip, however, was the Central Baptist Church on Radcliffe Street. There, I got to see first hand the only known church murals that still exist that were painted by my great grandfather, Amohamed Milai.

Although I didn't get to visit until 2003, I had found this church in 1997 by casually typing in my great grandfather's name in a search engine. There in the Charleston Library's list of local churches was a church picture and description with his name as the muralist.

Now this information is all over the internet, but then this was the only reference I could find.I knew he was a photographer and a muralist. Supposedly he was born in Spain or India and studied art in Italy. In a newspaper article about him, it said that his maternal grandfather was an artist named Alexis Byngotti. My family had a few prints of Amohamed's murals, a few sketches, and a few letters. He eventually separated from my great grandmother which explains the lack of artifacts we have. I assumed most of his murals ended up getting painted over. But we were very lucky that this Church had a unique history that protected his artwork. With the name Amohamed, my family assumes he must have converted to Christianity from Islam (whether he really converted or just pretended to is a family mystery).

Through more genealogy research including family DNA results, we now question whether he was Asian Indian. We do know his native language was Spanish. It now looks more likely that he was a mixture of any of the following: Spanish, North African, West Asian or even Spanish West Indies. In one document he even says he was a British citizen! Unfortunately the story of his family's origin from Calcutta, India is most likely just that; a story. The information of a maternal Italian grandfather who was an artist is also in question.

Detail of the altar mural depicting the Baptism of Christ.

Source

What Do We know?

We have not yet found any immigration or naturalization information aside from that he immigrated to the United States either in 1893 or 1898. What we do know is that he was educated and must have had some formal artistic training and exposure to the Italian Giotto style. Where could he have gotten training in the 1880's? Were there any well known art schools either in the Old World or the Caribbean where he would have studied? The search continues.

Amohamed Milai aka Alonso Davio Milai

This photo is dated between 1900 and 1905.
This photo is dated between 1900 and 1905. | Source

The Church

The Central Baptist Church was the first African-American church in Charleston that was totally designed and built by African-Americans. It was built in 1891. The architect was John Hutchinson. Amohamed met congregation members at a Baptist convention and solicited to do work for them. His payments were basically room and board for he and his wife and children. He spent 1912 -1915 painting the murals while living on and off in Charleston.

In 1999, the congregation with help from conservators finally got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and conservator Craig Crawford along with local conservator Catherine Rogers cleaned and restored the images to their bright and colorful original look. The Dedication Program was in October 2002 which I just missed by 8 months.The church is now in the National Registry of Landmarks so I have confidence that Amohamed's murals will remain for generations to come.

Giotto (Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists)
Giotto (Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists)

This series is written beautifully. I have the Monet book. This book series clearly describes the artist's work in a pleasant format.

 

Visiting Central Baptist Church in Charleston - all photo rights reserved by author

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Another view of the Ascension.The Resurrection of Christ.Altar and ceiling.Central Baptist Church in Charleston, SC: outside.Right balcony wing: The Story of Jesus.Left  balcony wing: The Road to Golgotha.Kimberly Milai with her husband and 2 children.The Baptism of Christ.Corner wall with carrying the cross and the crucifixion.The Road to Golgotha: civilians and soldiers.The Road to Golgotha: onlookers.The Road to Golgotha: person getting information from a bystander.Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.Closeup: Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.The Crucifixion.I think this is Mary Magdalene and JesusThe Ascension.Signature of Amohamed Milai.My family  at fountains while walking around the Spolito Festival.
Another view of the Ascension.
Another view of the Ascension.
The Resurrection of Christ.
The Resurrection of Christ.
Altar and ceiling.
Altar and ceiling.
Central Baptist Church in Charleston, SC: outside.
Central Baptist Church in Charleston, SC: outside.
Right balcony wing: The Story of Jesus.
Right balcony wing: The Story of Jesus.
Left  balcony wing: The Road to Golgotha.
Left balcony wing: The Road to Golgotha.
Kimberly Milai with her husband and 2 children.
Kimberly Milai with her husband and 2 children.
The Baptism of Christ.
The Baptism of Christ.
Corner wall with carrying the cross and the crucifixion.
Corner wall with carrying the cross and the crucifixion.
The Road to Golgotha: civilians and soldiers.
The Road to Golgotha: civilians and soldiers.
The Road to Golgotha: onlookers.
The Road to Golgotha: onlookers.
The Road to Golgotha: person getting information from a bystander.
The Road to Golgotha: person getting information from a bystander.
Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.
Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.
Closeup: Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.
Closeup: Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene.
The Crucifixion.
The Crucifixion.
I think this is Mary Magdalene and Jesus
I think this is Mary Magdalene and Jesus
The Ascension.
The Ascension.
Signature of Amohamed Milai.
Signature of Amohamed Milai.
My family  at fountains while walking around the Spolito Festival.
My family at fountains while walking around the Spolito Festival.

Records and Archives - all photos are of materials owned by the author

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Wilkes-Barre Newsstory about Amohamed Milai.Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 1Amohamed Milai around 1912.Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 3 with signature.Card back study of the crucifixion for an eventual mural.Card back photos of murals destroyed in a fire.Card back photos of murals.Sketches of the Resurrection.Sketches of the Crucifixion.Copies of news stories concerning the dedication and also my visit in 2003.Closeup of a photo taken in front of a mural at the church.Copy of the Dedication Program in 2002.Program insert for the service I attended.Souvenirs from the Central Baptist Church.
Wilkes-Barre Newsstory about Amohamed Milai.
Wilkes-Barre Newsstory about Amohamed Milai.
Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 1
Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 1
Amohamed Milai around 1912.
Amohamed Milai around 1912.
Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 3 with signature.
Milai's letter to my great grandmother, Sally Tibbs: page 3 with signature.
Card back study of the crucifixion for an eventual mural.
Card back study of the crucifixion for an eventual mural.
Card back photos of murals destroyed in a fire.
Card back photos of murals destroyed in a fire.
Card back photos of murals.
Card back photos of murals.
Sketches of the Resurrection.
Sketches of the Resurrection.
Sketches of the Crucifixion.
Sketches of the Crucifixion.
Copies of news stories concerning the dedication and also my visit in 2003.
Copies of news stories concerning the dedication and also my visit in 2003.
Closeup of a photo taken in front of a mural at the church.
Closeup of a photo taken in front of a mural at the church.
Copy of the Dedication Program in 2002.
Copy of the Dedication Program in 2002.
Program insert for the service I attended.
Program insert for the service I attended.
Souvenirs from the Central Baptist Church.
Souvenirs from the Central Baptist Church.

Description of the Church - My Visit

Two congregation elders picked me up to have a personal tour of the church. Words can't describe the feeling when I first entered and gazed over all the many murals around me. Amohamed filled the walls and ceilings with figures, land, clouds and sky. The figures were more stylistic as opposed to realistic- almost more like folk art. Later, I got to meet local conservator Catherine Rogers during my trip there and we both eagerly exchanged information. I came prepared with copies of sketches and portraits for her to have. I also brought copies for the congregation.

On the second floor balcony the story of Jesus was told in pictorial form. On the right side was the story of his adult life and preaching. On the left, the entire wall going down the front of the church depicts the Road to Golgotha. The elders said as you walk past the murals towards the altar, you get a deep, religious feeling of following Christ's path. The images finally meet up with Jesus carrying the cross with Simon of Cyrene helping him. At the altar is the crucifixion and finally his resurrection and ascension. Below by the podium is a small mural of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.

The next day my whole family got to see the inside of the church before the service. We were warmly welcomed by the pastor and others in the congregation. I did say a few words during the lovely ceremony.Prior to the congregation arriving, I played a recording of my grandfather (Amohamed's son) reciting a poem and then playing the song The World is Waiting for the Sunrise on his banjo. The last time this church heard his voice echoing in those halls was when he was a little boy.

Sketch of the Crucifixion

Source

Genealogy on Amazon

There is a wealth of information on the internet, but when away from the web, these are good reference books to start your family history journey.

Comments most welcome.

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    • profile image

      Tom Wyant 12 months ago

      My grandmother gave my father a framed picture of The Immersion of Christ by Amohamed Milai when my father was ordained in 1951. It's approximately 12" X 18". I'm wondering if it's worth anything.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 2 years ago

      Wow! I will look into that thank you!

    • profile image

      Ken Johnson 2 years ago

      Your Grandfather also painted a Mural at a Church in Branchville, SC. It was featured online.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      Yes, I sent you a fan mail with my side email. Look forward to hearing from you.

    • profile image

      Nesh7 3 years ago

      Hi, is there a way to contact you personally? I have a hunch that we may share the same lineage in reference to Amohamed Milai.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @takkhisa: Thank you Takkhis. BTW it is my great-grandfather. Although my grandfather was an artist too. :)

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 3 years ago

      I wish if my grandfather could do like this! Your grandfather was a great artist.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @WriterJanis2: I feel lucky to have seen it. I wish I could have taken my great Aunt there (his daughter). She died just a few years before I found it. I hope to visit again with my sister.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      What a treasure that must have been for you to be able to see his work.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      How wonderful that you can see the artwork your grandfather painted, and that it is so lovingly preserved. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it here.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @LiteraryMind: Me too! Thank you LiteraryMind for stopping by. :)

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 3 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      What a great family legacy. I hope the church continues to preserve the murals for the future.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @JoslynHighlander: Your welcome. I had meant to write about it someday. :)

    • Lionrhod profile image

      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Lovely! How cool for you to be able to see his work. One of my Great-Uncle ancestors was a silversmith and my aunt has a collection of his gorgeous spoons and forks - a fox with grapes. I'm hoping to get one of them someday! When my grandma was a child, he'd send her one every year for her birthday.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @Lionrhod: Thank you for telling your family 'cool ancestor story' to hold and feel something your ancestor crafted would be amazing.

    • JoslynHighlander profile image

      JoslynHighlander 3 years ago

      What a beautiful and extraordinary lens and how great to see all the wonderful murals, thank you so much for posting these.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @OhMe: You're so welcome. Enjoy Charleston! :)

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @esmonaco: You're welcome. You're so lucky to have family there!

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @flycatcherrr: Thank you so much flycatcher. I'm kind of the family archivist many family member don't have time or interest. I loved looking into this

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @GrammieOlivia: Wow! It would be especially hard to find in a different country. What a wonderful story.

    • Kim Milai profile image
      Author

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      @captainj88: You're so welcome. :)

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 3 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Oh wow, I have never been to this church but will certainly look it up on my next trip to Charleston. It must have been so exciting to see your great grandfather's talents still being enjoyed after all these years. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story.

    • esmonaco profile image

      Eugene Samuel Monaco 3 years ago from Lakewood New York

      An amazing story of your great grandfather, your pictures are outstanding, I love Charleston as we have family there and visit often.I will be sure to find this chuch on my next trip. Thanks for for sharing your family :)

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 3 years ago

      Such a fascinating bit of history to have in your family background! Thank you for sharing your great-grandfather's story and pictures of his murals, but especially for a look at the sketches for the paintings. It's so interesting to get a glimpse into the working methods and mind of the artist in that way. What a treasure you have here.

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      GrammieOlivia 3 years ago

      Neat, I had an aunt that spent many years in Turkey on her back, doing frescoes in Churches there, but alas no first hand knowledge and it's too late now...........

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 3 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      That is so cool! Thank you for introducing me to your artist ancestor.