The noise inside the Signature African Art gallery in London, England, evaporated when Maro Itoje walked through its doors on a muggy June evening. The clamour that had existed only an instant before died down so quickly that the subsequent silence seemed to have an audible register of its own.
“Hi everyone,” Itoje said, a broad smile beaming from his angular face almost 2m from the floor. “Hope you’re all well.”
Celebrities across a range of vocations attract attention as if they possess a different gravitational density than the rest of us. But surely few do so with the same combination of charm, comfort and bashfulness from the 26-year-old rugby player.
It wasn’t only his imposing size, immaculate khaki shirt or outrageous prowess on a rugby field that drew attention. Itoje was at the gallery not as an athlete, but as a lover of art.
The English lock forward – who was named as Man of the Match in the first Test between the British and Irish Lions and the Springboks on Saturday 24 July – was hosting a small group of journalists and broadcasters at an exhibition that he helped curate. Titled A History Untold, the show was put on to help shift the discourse on Black history and the global contribution of Africans.
“Growing up in the UK, I was fortunate to go to some great schools,” said Itoje, who attended the prestigious Harrow School that has seven former British prime ministers, five international monarchs and three Nobel Prize laureates among its alumni. “But one of my criticisms of the curriculum, through the education we’re getting, is it seems that Black history is starting at the slave trade. That is obviously completely inaccurate. A lot of these pieces at the show speak to a time before that.”
The fifth wave
It is no longer wholly unexpected for elite athletes to tackle subjects beyond the boundaries of their sport. According to Harry Edwards, author of the seminal 1969 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete, we are in the midst of the fifth wave of athlete activism.
The first wave was inspired by track and field athlete Jesse Owens and boxers Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, Black Americans who broke the race barrier competing against white athletes before World War II. Then came baseball players Jackie Robinson and Larry Dobby and basketball player Chuck Cooper, who went beyond the mere quest for legitimacy and pushed for wider access and acceptance.
The third wave was inspired by boxer Muhammad Ali and the raised fists of track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympic Games. These outspoken critics used their platforms to challenge racist power structures not only in the United States but around the world.
The fourth wave somewhat dissipated momentum. Athletes such as golfer Tiger Woods and basketball player Michael Jordan became symbols of capitalism and entertainment for fans across race and class. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” Jordan once quipped during a 1990 Senate race in his home state of North Carolina when asked to endorse African American Democrat Harvey Gantt, who was running against Republican Jesse Helms, a vile racist. Charles Barkley, another high-profile basketball player at the time, proudly declared that he was “not a role model”.
Then American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during his country’s national anthem in protest against police violence meted out on Black bodies. The gesture has since become an instantly recognised symbol in the struggle for racial equality. Despite widespread criticism and the galvanisation of critics against the anti-racist stance, athletes from a range of sporting codes now bend their knee and raise their fist at the frontline of a broader struggle for Black civil rights.
Itoje did both before the kick off against the Springboks. In a sport often perceived as the bastion of the elite in the United Kingdom, Itoje is willing to inject a dose of perspective that not all is right with the world.
“I play a sport that has a certain stereotype,” he told The Guardian in May. “Growing up playing rugby, there weren’t too many individuals who looked like me. So I always think about when I was a young player coming up through the game, and wanting to be someone who could connect to that individual, and make them feel more comfortable playing rugby. Representation matters.”
Itoje is represented by Roc Nation, a management agency that represents athletes who are not afraid to cross previously concrete barriers between sport and politics. English footballer Marcus Rashford is also a client, as are Springboks Siya Kolisi and Cheslin Kolbe, two of the more vocal South African rugby players who have used their personal narratives to speak out on the economic and social imbalances in the country.
Steering the conversation
Itoje admitted that the art exhibition’s power to influence change would be restricted. The gallery is in Mayfair, one of London’s most affluent suburbs. The small two-storey space is surrounded by sports car dealerships, exclusive members’ clubs and high-end fashion boutiques. Can this show really shift the needle and achieve its aim of influencing the UK school curriculum?
“Not one thing will make the difference or turn the world,” Itoje said, clearly conscious of his project’s limitations. “To truly push it and turn it, you have to be in government. But things like this, spaces like this, they all help push the conversation.
“All of this stuff helps us change the narrative. Change the perception, change how people think and feel. Those who control the words and images control the minds of the people. If we start telling stories that are more holistic, if we can present a more accurate picture, then we can tend to move towards what I believe will be a better outcome.”
Itoje became interested in art on one of his many visits to his parents’ birthplace in Nigeria. He had grown frustrated by the lack of Black or African artists featured in London galleries and so sought to find work that spoke to him at its source.
“I didn’t go to one of the more upmarket galleries. I went to the art market where there are a lot of local artists. A lot of artists were selling their art directly. That’s where I saw it en masse. It was so rich. The colour, the vibrancy, the texture. It was dynamic, even in the movements they were displaying them.”
Now his home is filled with works from the continent. They serve as conversation starters, and teammates and coaches have begun to take an interest not only in the art on a superficial level but in what it represents.
By his own admission, Itoje is no art expert. He likens a complex painting depicting the many inhabitants of Timbuktu to “a more sophisticated version of Where’s Wally?”.
“I come at it from a pure appreciation point of view,” he said. “I just appreciate the skill, the artistry, the talent. Maybe because I can’t do it. I can’t paint, I don’t have the skills with metals to form sculptures. I’m still finding my feet.”
This has not stopped him from forming strong opinions about controversial subjects. Take the question of the Benin Bronzes as an example. The metal plaques and sculptures numbering in their thousands, which once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria, sit in museums in Europe and North America. They are there because of looting carried out by the British Empire. Nigeria wants them back. The former colonial powers are holding firm.
“If I took something that wasn’t mine, the right thing to do would be to return them,” was Itoje’s simple summation of the situation. “If you talk about the origins of how these things got taken, it was through looting really. Stolen is probably the right word to describe it. If I took something from somebody else, the right thing would be for me to return it. It’s a relatively straightforward issue.”
So, too, is his impact when donning the Lions red. He was the ticking heartbeat of everything that worked for the tourists in their 22-17 win in the series opener. He may wear the number of a second-rower on his back but he is an all-action menace, operating at times as a third loose forward. He made eight tackles from nine attempts and won three momentum-changing turnovers. He was a formidable presence at the breakdown and served as a near unmissable target in the line-out. It’s no wonder many consider him the most complete forward in world rugby.
He has urged his teammates not to grow complacent. “This win will mean nothing unless we go out and win next weekend,” he said after the final whistle. “While this is a great win I’m proud to be part of, we know that we need to do a job next weekend. That’s when it really counts.”
Whatever happens over the following week, Itoje will unquestionably leave an indelible mark on his sport. But he is so much more than just an athlete. He is a socially conscious beacon of change who can wax lyrical about the nuances of a set piece as easily as the brushstrokes of his favourite artist. Whatever it is he’s talking about, he’s worth listening to.