But Itoje’s interests have long extended beyond the white lines of the pitch. Later this month, he will be presenting an exhibition called A History Untold at the Signature African Art gallery in London. Featuring work by six African and diaspora artists, it is an attempt to offer an alternative view of African history, spotlighting achievements and pioneers that have largely been overlooked. One of the pieces, a reproduction of an ancient counting stick called the Ishango bone, celebrates Africa’s contribution to mathematics. Another piece, by the sculptor Steve Ekpenisi, represents the tradition of African metallurgy, which foreshadowed the Industrial Revolution in Europe by centuries.
For Itoje, it is the culmination of a longstanding passion, one kindled when he moved into his first apartment in 2015 and wanted to decorate it with African art, only to discover that he could scarcely find any. A visit to an art market in Nigeria, the country of his parents’ birth, offered a kind of epiphany. “I was just blown away by the richness of the art,” he says. “The texture, the shapes, the dynamism. It all really spoke to my soul.” He tries to go back every year and makes sure to pick up a couple of pieces for his collection whenever he does.