Dusti Bongé joss papers watercolor paintings

A delightful painting with a fascinating backstory is in the spotlight for See Great Art’s ongoing partnership with the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation in Biloxi, MS. We’ll learn not only about Dusti Bongé’s curiosity and inventiveness, but something about the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well.

Analysis of the artwork comes from Dusti Bongé Art Foundation Executive Director Ligia M. Römer.

Dusti Bongé, Untitled (Purple and Green Feathers with Orange), 1984, watercolor on joss paper, 5 7/8” x 4 7/8”

Here we have a beautiful, bright, late work from Dusti Bongé’s extensive series of Joss Papers. The joss papers offer an interesting confluence of time, place, culture, and creativity. Joss papers, more commonly referred to as Spirit Money or Ghost Money, are part of a Buddhist ritual of honoring one’s ancestors.

Various Buddhist cultures use joss papers, or joss sticks, as ceremonial burnt offerings in their ancestral spirit worship. By sending them “money,” the hope is to appease one’s forbearers so that they, in turn, may look down on their descendants favorably.  

When the Vietnamese immigrated to the US after the war, some of them settled on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, primarily in Biloxi. Being a lively, swampy, seafaring, fishermen’s town, the lifestyle and climate here bore many similarities to theirs at home. As they settled in Biloxi, they brought with them their unique customs, traditions, and foods. One of those traditions was that of offering spirit money to their ancestors.

As Vietnamese people started establishing themselves in the area, they opened their own grocery stores that offered supplies not available at the local supermarkets. That is how joss paper made it to Biloxi.

Forty years ago, in 1984, Dusti’s son Lyle returned from the local Vietnamese market with his groceries and a pack of joss papers for Dusti. The papers are typically made from coarse bamboo paper or rice paper. Traditional joss is cut into individual rectangles with a small square of silver or gold colored foil centered on them.

For Dusti, this new paper immediately acquired a wholly different purpose and became a challenging novel material to explore. After some experimenting, she quickly took a liking to the joss and started to create numerous small watercolor paintings.

She expressed her artistic fascination with the joss paper as follows:

“It became a special challenge to make it seem as if I had placed that little square right there.”

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