Mama’s Dream World

Nestled in Belzoni, Mississippi, a small town of roughly 2,000 people in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, rests a true gem: the Ethel Wright Mohamed Stitchery Museum, better known as Mama’s Dream World, seen in the photograph below. The museum commemorates the life and work of Ethel Wright Mohamed. Born in 1906 in nearby Webster County, Mississippi, Mohamed was an incredibly well-read, cosmopolitan woman who began stitching her life and memories into intricate, colorful, and detailed embroideries. These stitchery pictures document her biography, as well as embody the morals and principles Mohamed and her family lived by, and wished to impart upon future generations. I had the opportunity to visit the museum recently as a part of a research project, and in addition to the preserving life and work of an understudied artist, the museum also embodies the spirit and personality of the Delta region. 

Upon entering the house, you arrive in a sitting room filled with period-appropriate furniture. The first two paintings are of Ethel and her husband Hassan, photographed below; he is wearing his regalia honoring his membership in the Wahabi Shriners of Mississippi. By prominently placing these two paintings in the home, the visitor immediately recognizes the importance of their marriage as a thread weaving together Ethel’s biography and artistic practice.

Paintings of Ethel and Hassan

Ethel and Hassan met when she was about 16: she worked at a bakery Hassan visited every day. One day, as the story goes, Ethel commented that it seemed as if Hassan really liked the bakery’s products, and he responded by saying “no, I like you.” He would soon court her by building a friendship with her father, a Baptist preacher. They would marry on April 21, 1924. Nearby their portraits is a family picture, one made in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary featuring their eight children. Having the family portrait in a central place in the home teaches the visitor of the importance of family to Ethel and Hassan, which continues through the generations, especially since Ethel and Hassan’s children and grandchildren now care for the home and museum.

On the tour, the first room is the Gold Room, which would have been the bedroom belonging to different children throughout Ethel’s life depending on who was oldest. This room importantly teaches us how Ethel began her journey to embroider her life and memories. Her earliest works were “memory blocks,” small quilt-like squares capturing different moments she wished she had pictures of, including her and Hassan’s first date, their first car, and their wedding day. In this way, Ethel created a family album and autobiography through her pictures. Also in this room are a number of lithographs of Ethel’s larger commissions, such as her work for the 1976 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., which was the event that brought her national recognition, and launched her career as an artist. You can see her embroidery for the festival here: Yet this room, like each one in the house, tells us what Ethel valued above all: her family. Thus, her pictures were a way to remember her family and the lovely life she had with them.

The second room is Hassan’s room where he rested when he became ill before his tragic passing in 1965. This room also tells us about something else which was important to Ethel: her husband, Hassan. Their love story is one depicted prominently throughout the home, yet this room emphasizes his biography. A cabinet of curiosities to the side holds his certificate of immigration, one of his early photos in the US (photographed below), a small cedar wood box with the tree of Lebanon, and a picture of Hassan in his first store, amongst other things. Around the room are other works made by Ethel, some biographical, such as her self-portrait at age 16, one of Ethel having a dream where animals watched her in her studio, and also fables about a husband who spent his time playing a fiddle.

An early photo of Hassan with some other personal items

My favorite work in Hassan’s room is the one below, a pillowcase with four men smoking. In relation to Ethel’s many other biographical pictures, it seems quite different, but it too reflects her love for Hassan and her family. Hassan was a Syrian immigrant from Lebanon who arrived on Ellis Island with very little money to his name on the White Star Shipline in 1911. He slowly made his way to Mississippi, working along the way to earn money to continue his journey to a bustling place known for its economic prosperity, openness to newcomers, and strong sense of community. A devoted father, Hassan told his children stories from the book Arabian Nights, a famous book of tales from which we now have stories like Aladdin. When he fell ill, Ethel stitched him a complete set of sheets and pillowcases with scenes from the Arabian Nights. She wanted it to make him happy and feel strong during a difficult time. Each night before Hassan passed, Ethel would also tell him stories as a means to spend time with him. Hassan passed away in 1965, sending Ethel into a deep period of grief, but also inspiring her to begin a prolific period of making in which she would stitch her memories into pictures.

Pillowcase stitched with scenes from Arabian Nights

The third room is Ethel’s. Hanging prominently above her bed is her portrait, and a photograph of her and Hassan taken at their 25th wedding anniversary. The many pictures in Ethel’s bedroom also reflect her character. Some tell stories about her children, who she loved greatly; others depict the Mohamed family tree, which Ethel meticulously documented; one is about Hassan’s store, which Ethel managed after he passed away until she retired in her 80s, something she was very proud of; another memorializes the place where she was born, as Mississippi was a place she always held dear to her heart. The majority of the room, however, is a testament to her philanthropy and generosity. After achieving national recognition around 1976, many charities in Mississippi asked her to donate pictures so they could sell them at auction. Thus, the lithographs celebrate the many works she kindly gave away to support causes such as medical research, reflecting her giving, charitable nature, something Hassan also valued deeply.

Leaving Ethel’s room, you enter a small piano room and library, illuminating the way Ethel was an avid reader and curious individual. She researched many topics throughout her life, some in preparation for her work, and also copied the encyclopedia as she did homework with her children. Finally, the tour ends in a small dining room/gift shop, which has small cards and prints for sale, including some signed by the artist before her passing in 1992. My favorite part of this room is the many certificates and letters on the wall documenting people’s gratitude for Ethel’s participation in the 1976 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, for which she made an embroidery that graced the program’s cover. One of the letters, photographed below, describes her and her work beautifully, noting the “skill, human compassion and humor” of her art, which prompted her commission for the 1976 festival. Yet it was not about her work alone, as the letter goes on to write about Ethel as a friend, saying that her art reflects her “depth, warmth and personal insight,” honoring her kind, generous spirit she also imbued into her art. These many papers celebrate the moment Ethel achieved national recognition, a journey this humble Mississippi woman probably never expected to embark upon, but one which she deserved and then used to help others.

Letter of gratitude to Ethel for participating in the 1976 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife

This small house museum, free to visitors and open by appointment only, is beyond words. It is not simply a place where objects hang, or a venue where stories are told. It is a space embodying nostalgia for a simpler time, reflecting the love of a close-knit family and the ability of a needle and thread to capture the love and values which transcend generations. Visitors leave not just with a new understanding of Ethel Wright Mohamed’s craft, but also stories of immigration, religion, and family that should prompt us all to take a thoughtful look at the world around us, and approach others the way Ethel and Hassan would have wanted us to: with kindness and generosity.

The author wishes to thank the Center for Craft in Asheville, NC, and the family of Ethel Wright Mohamed for supporting this project.

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Rachel Winter

Rachel Winter is a Ph.D. candidate, emerging curator, and museum educator. Rachel’s specialization is contemporary artists from Southwest Asia and North Africa, or the Middle East. Her dissertation examines the relatively unknown history of curating and collecting contemporary art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey before 9/11 in both the US and the UK, as well as how collecting and curatorial practices were informed by earlier fairs and festivals.