International rugby player and art collector, Maro Itoje, launches exhibition dedicated to Nigerian artists at Spring Studios

Maro Itoje
Interviewed by Andrew Washford Murphy, Head of Social Media

8-minute read

Spring caught up with the England and Saracens star ahead of the launch of his new project Akoje Gallery at Spring Studios London, to find out more about his own connection with art, and Nigerian art in particular. Here, he talks about his first visit to the art market in Lagos, the importance of celebrating artists from the African diaspora and partnering with gallerist Khalil Akbar.

Hi Maro! What role does art play in your life? 

The role art plays in my life is twofold. I sometimes think that art is an outward expression of yourself. For example, the way I've designed my home, the interiors, I feel as if it's an outwardly expression of myself, of my personality. So, I think that's one aspect. I think the second aspect is it provides joy, it provides ease, it provides a connection, particularly the type of art that I'm drawn to. I'm drawn to African art, West African art. I'm originally from Nigeria and that art really connects me back to Nigeria.

How do you think art shapes and impacts culture? 

I think art is a fundamental aspect or at least a subsection of culture. I think art inspires. I think art often can be used to get points across, whether it's socially, whether it's politically. So, art is intertwined with culture. You can't really have culture without the arts. You can't really have the arts without culture because both entities influence one another. 

Could you tell us about the first art piece you bought?

“When I was about 21, I was moving into my first apartment and I was going around London looking for African art, and at that time I could barely find any and the very little African art I did find was way beyond my price range. So, I shared my predicament with my mum, and she said, “don't worry, when we go to Nigeria, I'll take you to the art market and we'll get as much art as you want there”. Lo and behold, nine or so months later, we went, and I was taken aback by the colour, by the dynamism, by the richness of texture. And I felt a real connection to I all. So, I bought so many pieces that I can’t remember which was my first one, but they all hold a special place in my heart.”

"I believe that African art is on an upward trajectory. I believe that it's moving in a positive direction and through the gallery, we want to be a contributor to that space. We want to help push the narrative forward and further elevate African art in the wider world."

Launching an art gallery is a significant undertaking. How did you go about launching Akoje Gallery?

In 2020, I hosted an exhibition called ‘A History Untold’ at Khalil Akar's gallery. It was all about black and African history and exposing society and culture, particularly in schools, to a fuller story. The exhibition was well received, and Khalil and I started discussing how we could potentially work together in the future. And after going through a couple iterations, here we are with Akoje Gallery.

Could you tell us a bit about your co-founder Khalil Akar?

Khalil was the art director at Signature African Art Gallery in London, Davies St. He's got a whole wealth of experience in this space. He's worked day in day out for the last 5+ years in the African art world. He comes from an African art family - his father is the gallery director of Signature Art Gallery in Lagos, which is one of the biggest galleries in Nigeria. 

Could you tell us about the exhibition and the inspiration behind it?

The exhibition is called ‘A Garden’s Beauty Never Lies in One Flower’. When we were thinking about what to call this exhibit, it was a little bit difficult to be honest, because I was thinking of all these different paintings, different styles, different techniques… How do we encompass a name that that covers all these different artists and artworks? And when I heard that quote by author Matshona Dhliwayo, it really stuck with me because that is what this exhibition is all about. We have so many different artists, a few different styles, and the beauty of this exhibition is not just in one painting, it's not just in one artwork. I felt as if the title really encompasses what we're trying to achieve.

How did you go about selecting the artists to be involved in the gallery? What was that process like?

It was really a collaborative effort between myself and Khalil. We had a whole long list of potential artists that we were looking at, and after going through it and assessing their styles, looking at their uniqueness, looking at their identity and what they stand for, we reached out to them.

And when you say “looking at what they stand for”, what do you mean by that?

The gallery is all about promoting and celebrating African artists and artists from the African diaspora who no longer live in Africa. It’s about championing those voices - there's a real pride to being from Africa and the art that comes from that continent. So, we were looking for artists who really matched that ideal and who have that sense of pride that flows from their work.

How does this first exhibition fit into your vision for the gallery long-term? Where do you see it going?

With this first exhibition, we really wanted to set the tone for what's to come in the future for Akoje Gallery. It’s going to be a touring gallery, so we plan on being in different locations across the world both in Europe and in the Americas, as well as Africa. We want it to really represent the pride and the art, particularly from the African continent. I believe that African art is on an upward trajectory. I believe that it's moving in a positive direction and through the gallery, we want to be a contributor to that space. We want to help push the narrative forward and further elevate African art in the wider world.


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