The Secret of Amohamed's Church Murals
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
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.
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
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.
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 authorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Records and Archives - all photos are of materials owned by the authorClick thumbnail to view full-size
This is a well recommended travel guide.
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
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.