Maro Itoje scores a try at Sotheby’s with his guest curation of Contemporary African art

Professional rugby player Maro Itoje has ventured into the contemporary art auction world, with his guest curation of the upcoming ‘Contemporary Curated’ sale at Sotheby’s London. Itoje is one of English rugby’s biggest stars: he is blindside flanker for English Championship club Saracens and the England National team, and has won three European Rugby Champions Cups with his club, and three Six Nations titles with England, as well as being named European player of the year in 2016. However, Itoje is by no means only absorbed in the world of rugby. He has a keen interest in art, particularly contemporary Nigerian art, so his involvement in Sotheby’s upcoming contemporary auction seems the perfect fit.

The 27 year-old, in an interview with The Times, claimed his interest in contemporary African art was “a bit of a love affair”, and he now owns a number of works which he purchased from the art market in Lagos. Itoje’s parents, who are both Nigerian, played a part in fostering his love for art. He stated in an interview with Sotheby’s that, “growing up, my family home was decorated some African art pieces and I took that as normal, then once in the outside world, I realised that these pieces are pretty hard to come by, you don’t really seen them much either through visual media, television, newspapers or magazines”.

Artists featured in ‘Contemporary Curated’ include Omar Ba, a Senegalese artist who Itoje describes as, “a little bit different to what I would normally go for but still really interesting”. Derrick Adams’ Head 19 is also included, as well as a number of works by Itoje’s favourite, Foster Sakyiamah from Ghana. Itoje speaks positively of Sakyiamah, saying that, “there’s a certain way African artists depict the African woman. And I think he does it really well here, very elegant, very chic.”

Itoje’s passion for African art is not something one might expect from a rugby player, but he claims that his team-mates are very accepting of his interest, saying that “ironically, of all the things I get ribbed for, this is not one.”

The demand for contemporary African art has increased in recent years. Sotheby’s only started sales in this category four years ago, and since then it has achieved over 80 record-breaking sales, indicative of the international interest in African art. Hannah O’Leary, head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, told Quartz Africa earlier this year that, “this category is one that has seen a continued rise in sales even during the pandemic” and that, “from 2017-2019, we had a 30-50% growth in sales.”

Sotheby’s ‘Contemporary Curated’ will be exhibited in London from 5-10 November, with the auction open for bidding from 4-10 November.

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