Dusti Bongé fish sketch: symbolic or no?

“Reading” a painting can be a tricky exercise. Trying to divine an artist’s intention from what they put on paper or canvas. Sometimes, images are symbols; other times, they’re just that thing, or nothing at all.

Here we have Dusti Bongé sketching fish. Do the fish represent something deeper, or are they just fish? Dusti Bongé Art Foundation Executive Director Ligia M. Römer shares her opinion.

Dusti Bongé, Penworthy – Easy Glide Quality Writing Tablet – p.18, 1984, ink on paper, 9” x 4”

This sketchbook from 1984 is filled with Dusti Bongé’s calligraphic ink brush paintings inspired by Chinese art. Dusti became quite adept at wielding the ink brush, creating numerous iterations of bamboo, trees, flowers, fruit and, in this case, fish.

Fish, of course, have been a favorite art subject throughout the ages. In many traditional cultures fish are considered a symbol of the origin of life, as life originated from water. In Christianity, the fish is a symbol of Christ and also symbolic of baptism. Fish in Chinese art are seen as a symbol of wealth, harmony and even marital happiness.

And in Western art, raw fish in still lifes often indicated a notion of abundance and piety, while live fish have been depicted as man’s foe. In other words, the various symbolic meanings attributed to fish are numerous and at times quite nuanced.

On the other hand, locally, fish are a very real everyday non-symbolic part of life. In Biloxi, MS we have the striped mullet, a fish which is so abundant and available in the coastal waters, it is known as “Biloxi Bacon,” a term which has two origin stories. 

Some say it originated during the Civil War, when, as the coast was largely blockaded from getting supplies, the fish became a daily staple, often served with grits and eggs for breakfast. Others claim it was during the Great Depression, when Mississippians lived largely on mullet because they had no money and little food. Available year round, this fish’s abundance here is not metaphorical.

In this ink brush painting, Dusti painted three fish, which may or may not be mullet. Neither depicted happily in the water, nor as part of a full still life, these fish take on a less symbolic, more quotidian, quality.

Rendered with quick fluid lines and a bare minimum of details, they are presented in their essence, as a genuine source of sustenance, stripped of any symbolism.

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