Editor's note: The following gallery guide text was reprinted in Resource Library on June 4, 2007 with permission and courtesy of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. The gallery guide was prepared in connection with an exhibition named The Needle's Song: The Folk Art of Ethel Wright Mohamed, held May 10 - July 8, 2007 at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the gallery guide, please contact the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Needle's Song: The Folk Art of Ethel Wright Mohamed

May 10 - July 8, 2007


Starting May 10 and continuing through July 8, 2007, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art will feature over thirty artworks by Belzoni, MS artist Ethel Wright Mohamed, including preparatory drawings and several stitchery pieces never before exhibited. These colorful stitched works present a glimpse into the social history of Mississippi in the 19th and 20th centuries. One-room schoolhouses, a merchant peddling from his wagon, shape-note singing, a river baptism; these were among the subjects from daily life that Mohamed painted with needle and thread. (right: Ethel Wright Mohamed (1906-1992), Reflections on Spring Creek, 1972; 15 3/4 x 22 inches, Fabric, embroidery floss. On loan from Mama's Dream World, Belzoni, MS)

Born in 1906, Mohamed spent her adulthood raising eight children and helping her husband, Hassan Mohamed, run their general store. After his death, she began to recount stories of their life together in her embroideries. His Lebanese heritage and her deep Mississippi roots combined to create a family that turned two legacies into one unique family story. In the 1970s, she was "discovered" by a Smithsonian field agent and thereafter, her work was exhibited in Jackson, MS; Washington, DC; and elsewhere. Later she turned her home into a museum, "Mama's Dream World", which her daughters have continued to maintain since her death in 1992.

This exhibition is sponsored by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council and Community Bank. This Mississippi Humanities Council is an independent, nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donations. The Council's primary objective is to shed light, not heat, on the public issues of today by examining the larger value questions involved through the use of philosophy, literature, history and other disciplines in the humanities.

Gallery guide text from the exhibition


"Listen, as I pull the needle through the material, it makes music. I think that's the reason I'm so enchanted with it," it's a very quiet but beautiful sound. It sounds like birds singing, don't you think?"
- Ethel Wright Mohamed
Ethel Wright Mohamed (1906-1992) was born in Fame, Mississippi. The daughter of farmers, she met Hassan Mohamed in 1923 and married him in 1924, when she was eighteen years old. Hassan Mohamed, then a recent immigrant from Lebanon, started as a traveling salesman and eventually opened his own general store in Belzoni, Mississippi. During their forty-one year marriage, Ethel Wright Mohamed raised eight children and worked in the store alongside her husband.
Like many young women of the day, she learned stitchery at the knee of her mother and grandmother, who kept her busy and out of trouble by giving her needlework to do. Though she had always decorated pillowcases and other linens with stitched pictures, some copied from her copy of Arabian Nights, it wasn't until her husband's death in 1965 that Mohamed applied herself seriously to making her own "memory pictures." At first, Mohamed's pictures were family stories in the sense that they were both about and for her family members. Waiting for the Stork (1971), for example, is the story of the night her eighth child was born. Once the pieces were finished, Mohamed would write a little story about each one. The picture is divided into three sections, each depicting a different room in the house. At left, Mohamed lies in bed with her husband to the right, doctor to the left, and midwife at lower right corner. Her three sisters sit in bright red chairs, and over the bed are eight frames with seven pictures of the Mohameds' children. In a separate room, their housekeeper and nanny, Mittie, tends to six of the children; in the lower right, the baby of the family, Bubba, refuses to leave the baby bed that he will soon have to vacate.
The embroidery medium limits the artist to available thread colors and resists nuance in line and form, but Mohamed worked within these limits to produce images that are fresh and vibrant. Her strong use of color and whimsical details makes the images seem particularly fresh and contemporary, despite having been made using an old, traditional medium. For centuries, women artists who were denied access to formal artistic education and the art market turned to needlework to express themselves. Whether through quilting, tapestry, or embroidery, thousands of women's lives have been recorded stitch by stitch in silk, cotton, and wool. Interestingly, at a time when some of the limits on women artists had been lifted, and she could have chosen painting or sculpture, Ethel Wright Mohamed turned to the medium of her mother, and her mother's mother, to tell stories that would pass from generation to generation.
A long-time participant in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and genealogy enthusiast, Mohamed eventually turned to family stories outside of her immediate family circle. Reflections on Spring Creek (1972) depicts the Webster County homestead of her great-grandfather, Wiley Wright. However, this is an entirely imaginary image of that homestead. She had only her memories of her father's stories about his youth to inspire her. According to Mohamed, the picture shows her father in his favorite place, with his first horse and his initials carved on a tree, yet each detail is made up out of whole cloth. The title, with its double meaning, is typical of Mohamed's fondness for word play: there is the literal reflection of the farmstead in the creek as well as the artist's reflections on her ancestry, her father's youth, and life in an earlier century. There is also something oddly modernist about the doubling of animal and human in the bright blue creek, reminiscent almost of Marc Chagall's early scenes of folk tales. The reflection of cattle, the swimming swans, and the fish beneath the water all rest atop the blue surface. Though this is a necessary result of the use of embroidery, it also results in a vivid pattern, using repetition and variation within the scene to create a strong visual impact. Here, Mohamed uses appliquéd floral fabric to depict the rolling countryside. Throughout her career, she moved back and forth from images like this, with appliquéd solid backgrounds, to the more traditional embroidery, in which the figures appear on a field of solid color, usually white.
Mohamed eventually branched out into subject matter beyond her own family. She had a nostalgic interest in American history, particularly everyday life of country folks. Images like The Sacred Harp Singing (1974) and The Baptism (n.d.) depict community occasions. In the former, Mohamed has added her usual embellishments to the narrative:
It is said the sacred harp fa sol la singing is for the singers, not the listeners, because it is so different from all other singing. Of course the singing is not the only interesting thing about the day outside the church; there is plenty going on.
The ladies of the community bring well-filled baskets with delicious food, which they spread on long tables, and during the noon hour all present enjoy the feasting and fellowship with friends and relations. Here you see this man who hides behind a tree and takes a drink from his little brown jug now and then. The boy with his hands behind his back will be glad when they spread those baskets and eating begins. Here a mother must feed her children. Her son will not wait until the noon hour; he holds his plate ready to be filled. Here a man tips his hat to this lady -- she bakes great pies. As they say, the horse trader sees a horse he would love to own. He tells his friend, if it wasn't Sunday, I would ask you how much you wanted for that horse. His friend replies, well, if it wasn't Sunday, I would tell you $80.00. So right away he opens the horse's mouth to count his teeth. They may trade horses on Monday but never on Sunday.
Here is a tired mother and children resting under the trees with her baby asleep on a quilt. There is the waiting line.
According to Mohamed, she set out to depict a sacred harp singing as it might have appeared in 1874, one hundred years earlier than the work itself. Today sacred harp singing still exists, but in rather smaller quantities than a century ago.
Mohamed's work exhibits a unique mixture of contemporary aesthetics with the more typical qualities of folk art. For example, she mixes perspectives in a single image, so that the one sees the church in The Sacred Harp Singing from an aerial view, the singers from a tilted perspective, and the individual figures from the side. She chose each perspective based on what would give the viewer the most information about the object or person, rather than employing linear perspective. This is typical of self-taught artists, but one must not consider this an error or a lack of learning on Mohamed's part. Her home library consisted of a number of books of art history, including a survey of American art and one on Picasso. Mohamed was certainly aware of one-point perspective and aware that many twentieth-century artists chose to reject its use. She, too, made that choice. Her reasons were likely different than that of many of her colleagues, but it was a choice she made from knowledge, not ignorance. Having learned a lesson from the contemporary artists, Mohamed occasionally incorporated found objects into her works, collaging them into the needlework (the collage was invented by Picasso and Georges Braque). In My Trip to Switzerland, for example, she included a postcard and photos from that trip.
For the first time, a selection of the surviving preparatory drawings are being exhibited along with finished work. Mohamed's process seems to have started with a pencil sketch on plain white paper with notations regarding her planned colors and figures. Then she would move up to larger paper, copying the figures and then filling in with color. This sketch would be used to transfer the pattern to cloth, where she would finalize her figures and colors and occasionally add an additional flourish. Embroidery is rarely an improvisational medium; instead, the improvisation and imagination take place at the drawing stage. These works reveal Mohamed's creative process and her ability to clearly visualize her completed works.
Today, Mohamed's home is a museum called Mama's Dream World. The home is preserved as it was during her lifetime, and her youngest daughter, Carol Ivy, serves as curator. Mohamed's studio still contains her extensive library, her genealogy research, and even embroidery floss. Though many of her works remain a part of the Mama's Dream World collection, some twenty-five or more are in private collections throughout the state. Each year for several decades, Mohamed donated a stitchery piece to an art auction (Art for Hearts) in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work can also be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Mississippi History, and William Carey University.
-- Jill R. Chancey, PhD
Curator, Lauren Rogers Museum of Art

Editor's note: Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Holly Dodd, Director of Marketing, Lauren Rogers Museum of Art for her help concerning the above text.

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