The 39-year-old painter recently returned to the land where he was born and bred for two reasons: to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday with most if not all of his eight siblings, and to host an exhibition of seven of his works in The Print Room gallery at Beachcomber Pearl Market in Taputapuatea.
Both events are homecomings of sorts.
Rongo was one of the original artists in the Beachcomber Contemporary Art programme, which started in 2001, and held his first solo art show in the building two years later in 2003. Fifteen years on, this current exhibition – which opened last night and runs until July 27, is his second solo outing.
The gap might have been even longer where it not for a conversation between Rongo and his friend and mentor Ben Bergman of Bergman Gallery last August.
Working as a miner in Perth, Western Australia, where he lives with his wife Dernice and four – soon to be five, children, Rongo hadn’t painted anything since leaving Rarotonga in 2013.
“Art’s always been a big part of me, and to not do anything, to not make any artwork, left a big hole, you know?” he says.
“Last year, around about August, me and Ben started messaging each other. We got talking away and then some of those emotions started coming out and I expressed to him how I felt about where I am now.
“So he actually asked me if I wanted to do a piece and I quickly said to him, ‘How about do a show?’”
The rest, as they say, is history, although there were still a few hurdles to overcome.
“It took a while for me to get the ball rolling,” Rongo admits. “I got all my gear ready – canvas stretched on a sheet of plywood, and I was just sitting there.
“It just wasn’t there to start with, you know? I didn’t know what to paint.
“So I just sat there – I painted a few lines, and then just left it.”
Working two weeks on, one week off roster in the mines, Rongo would sporadically return to his painting, but inspiration was slow in coming.
“Come December, that painting was still just sitting there. I had to wipe the dust off it,” he laughs. “It was unbelievable aye; I was like, I don’t know if I can get this back or what.
“That side of me wasn’t connecting, if that makes any sense. So I just slowly worked at it, worked at it and it just came.
“Then when it finally arrived, I had to deal with another problem. I’d come back from two weeks of work, I’m all exhausted, tired – so I’d recover half of my week off, slowly get into painting, and then when I was really into it, I had to go back to work.”
Despite these problems, Rongo says that once he finally got going, “it was all on”.
Painted in acrylic on canvas, Rongo’s works draw on his memories and experiences of growing up in Rarotonga.
“Most of my work is based on when we were growing up as kids, how we lived and how our parents managed to feed a large family,” he says, explaining the title of his show, Kimi Ravenga, which translates as “finding a way to make things work”.
“We worked really hard – we fished a lot, we fed our pigs and goats, we worked in the taro patch. Work, work, work, all the time.”
“It was hard, but it was fun too; it was good you know? We had to make it fun back then.”