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“We’re not interested in plain white walls,” says Maro Itoje, an England rugby star and London’s newest gallery owner.

Co-helmed by business partner Khalil Akar, who formerly ran Signature African Art Gallery, Akoje Gallery will join a spate of new London spaces run by young art professionals hoping to provide an alternative to the traditional art market model.

The aim, “at the end of the day [is to] excite people”, Akar tells The Art Newspaper. Like many new galleries in an increasingly expensive city, Akoje will launch a pop-up space opening today, with a group show of the first artists to make the roster. The exhibition will run for two days and will be located at Spring Studios in London’s Chalk Farm.

Artists include the Nigerian painter Oluwole Omofemi (known for his west African influenced portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, commissioned for the late monarch’s platinum jubilee), the Trinidadian painter and printmaker Sarah Knights, the Nigerian scrap metal artist Dotun Popoola, the Nigerian painter Olawunmi Banjo, and the Nigerian portraitist Qozeem Abdulrahman.

“I didn’t grow up in the art world per se—and obviously my day job is very different from this. One thing that I’m very interested in is making [the gallery] feel normal and enjoyable for everyone who comes in,” Itoje says.

“Obviously we want to sell art,” he says, “but we also want the experience to be really rich for for everyone who comes in”.

Oluwole Omofemi’s Defender of Truth (2023), oil and acrylic on canvas

The focus of the gallery is on art from Africa and the diaspora. Akar and Itoje first met when they were introduced by the latter’s representatives in late 2019 to put together a show about Black history, which ran in 2021. The exhibition, called History Untold, was housed at Akar’s Signature African Art Gallery, which was then located in London’s Mayfair. It has since closed down.

Akar will now focus his efforts on Akoje’s travelling exhibitions. “We were looking at a few business models, including the permanent space—but the world is changing, it’s becoming more global,” he says. The pair plan to release an exhibition programme in early 2024. “Sometimes we may be following art fairs such as Frieze London,” Akar says. Although Akoje’s shows may be attached to global events in other sectors, he explains.

Ibiok Bright’s Skin The Chameleon (2021), oil and spray paint on canvas

The gallery’s programme is being delivered in partnership with Frieze although there is no financial backing from the media and fair brand, a spokesperson for Itoje confirms. Indeed, Itoje—who has made a name for himself as an art world figure working with brands such as Sotheby’s— sits on the Frieze 91 committee.

Akoje Gallery is launching at a time of burgeoning interest in African culture in the West, which the pair hopes to capitalise on with various partnerships outside of the art world.

This is an approach observed by others working in the African art space of recent, including the contemporary African art fair 1-54 whose latest London edition saw partnerships with the Afrobeats star Mr Eazi and the beauty brand Coty (1-54 has also historically platformed African fine dining). This thinking was also mirrored by the organisers of South London Gallery’s summer show: Lagos, Peckham, Repeat whose exhibition of Nigerian contemporary art was delivered alongside explorations of the country’s cuisine and music.

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