At the age of sixty Ethel Wright Mohamed of Belzoni began to create embroidered pictures that illustrated her life. By age eighty she had created more than 125 of these extraordinary “memory pictures,” and they had been featured at the Mississippi State Historical Museum, the Festival of American Folklife, the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, and two world’s fairs (1982 and 1984).
Wright was born on 13 October 1906 and grew up near Eupora. Working in a bakery at age sixteen, she met thirty-two-year-old Hassan Mohamed, owner of the local dry goods store. The two married in 1924 and soon moved to Belzoni, where they opened the H. Mohamed general merchandise store and raised eight children.
When her husband died in 1965, Ethel Mohamed continued to run the family store, but she was lonely. “I was a successful businesswoman. I had brought up eight wonderful children. I had been married to a marvelous man for forty-one years. Now here I was coming home at night to this big empty house. I needed a hobby.” First she tried painting, but one of her grandchildren was embarrassed by her art. “People will think you’re weird,” he said. When Mohamed was a child, her mother had encouraged her to draw and to embroider, to take scraps of cloth and make her own “coloring books.” She decided to take up embroidery: “That way I could fold up the work and put it away quickly when people came by.” She kept her stitchery hidden in a closet.
Her secret art brought her great happiness. “I began to stitch pictures, a family album of sorts, of my family’s history. Of graduations, of family stories, of pets and trees and flowers in our yard. I felt a great joy when I was stitching, as if this was what I was meant to do. The needle sang to me.” When Mohamed was persuaded to show her pictures to a local artist, she found a waiting audience for her work.
Mohamed created whole miniature worlds in her pictures of family and community events: births, holidays, scenes at home and at the store. One picture shows an ancestor leaving to fight for the Confederacy; a Sacred Harp singing group is the subject of another. Twelve pictures tell sequentially the story of the Mohamed family farm. The Beautiful Horse is about a favorite story that Hassan Mohamed brought from his native Lebanon.
The joy and the intimacy of Ethel Mohamed’s memories are evident in the animation, the brilliant colors, and the fanciful detail of each child, animal, plant, tree. In many of them the trees and plants are truly animated—each leaf with a smiling face. As she stitched, all parts of the needlework came to life to her, each tiny part of the picture with its own story. Mohamed never took out a stitch. If a face turned out ugly, she would tell it, “That’s too bad; you were just born that way.” She never sold her pictures.
In 1991 Ethel Mohamed received the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Her work is included in permanent exhibits of the Smithsonian Institution and has been featured on UNESCO greeting cards. She died on 15 February 1992.
- William Ferris, Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art (1982)
- Ethel Wright Mohamed Stitchery Museum website, www.mamasdreamworld.com
- Ethel Wright Mohamed, interview by Christine Wilson (1984)
- Emily Wagster, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (7 February 1992)
- Christine Wilson, ed., Ethel Wright Mohamed (1984)