Book and art dealers Fortesque Helepi and Nokuthula Helepi with art by Thulani Nhlapo. Picture: SUPPLIED
Book and art dealers Fortesque Helepi and Nokuthula Helepi with art by Thulani Nhlapo. Picture: SUPPLIED

African Flavour Books, which has massive support among lovers of African literature, is branching out and opening an art gallery to introduce young and new artists to the public.

While growing up in the Free State in the 1980s, book dealer Fortesque Helepi raided his mother’s collection of books. He fell in love with many of them, but especially loved those written in Sesotho, his mother tongue.

“I later read books in English, even though I didn’t understand a thing at the beginning,” he says. “But in no time, I grasped the language. The first English novel I read was Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.”

As an adult working as an engineer at Sasol, Helepi began his own collection,focusing on African literature written in the 1980s.

“What I find fascinating about the attitude of those writers is that they were so committed to their cause that they wrote politically charged books, even when they were uncertain whether the then apartheid government would ban their books or not,” he says.

A portrait by Thulani Nhlapo, part of the works in exhibition at the new African Flavour Gallery. Picture: EDWARD TSUMELE
A portrait by Thulani Nhlapo, part of the works in exhibition at the new African Flavour Gallery. Picture: EDWARD TSUMELE

“They also knew their audiences and therefore told stories that were relevant to readers using a language that was accessible. These days our new writers often struggle with identifying their readers, and therefore find it difficult to write with the reader in mind.”

Helepi’s passion for books turned into a successful business. He and his wife Nokuthula launched African Flavour Books in Vanderbijlpark in 2015, stocking books written by Africans from Cape Town to Cairo. The bookshop was a success and today they have another one in Braamfontein, with a third shop planned for the bustling Vilakazi precinct in Soweto in 2019.

“We have been inspired by the support we have got from South Africans for African Flavour Books,” he says. “When we first launched a book, we attracted only 15 people to the event in 2015. The brand grew phenomenally to the point that, in 2016 while celebrating our one-year anniversary with a Zakes Mda book launch, the bookshop attracted 300 people.

“We are now growing this brand by launching African Flavour Gallery at a new premises that will also house the original African Flavour bookshop.

“We are also going to launch African Flavour Research Library that will cater for people doing research on African literature. What we have discovered over the past four years is that certain books on African literature are hard to obtain as they are out of print, making it difficult for researchers to find material.”

African Flavour Gallery will showcase young and fresh artists from across the country, “those who find it hard to break into the big, well-known galleries that favour the big names”, Helepi says.

At its launch this week, the gallery exhibited promising artist Thulani Nhlapo, whose solo exhibition is titled We are Stars of the Universe.

“We decided to open this gallery [with Nhlapo’s work] because of the positive response by the market to his works that we displayed in the Braamfontein shop in May,” Helepi says. “The sales were good and we decided that there is a market for artists like Thulani who are at the beginning of their careers and their pricing is right — especially for new collectors of art, such as the black middle class.

“The message we are taking to our customers is that, just like books, art is story-telling. Collecting art is another way of consuming culture. We hope to attract art collectors from the Vaal, which is increasingly becoming an attraction for both locals and foreign tourists.”

Helepi knows the art trade is established and not easy to crack, but says they are in it for the long haul. Once again, they will be educating their customers about the value of art, prices that are fair and investment possibilities.

He will feature artists whose work he believes in, who have substance and show promise. “We would not be offering their works if we didn’t believe their art will stand the test of time both aesthetically and financially,” he says. “Additionally, we would like to make buying art a more transparent process.”

The art sector is a complicated business that has historically operated in an opaque manner. Business is conducted mainly on the basis of a complicated set of considerations, such as word of mouth, integrity and networking.

New entrants find it hard to penetrate the market and it often takes years of trial and error before building a reliable base of collectors who patronise a gallery.

“We are not experts but, together with art patrons, we will learn together,” Helepi says modestly.

• We are Stars of the Universe is at African Flavour Gallery, FW Beyers Street, Vanderbijlpark, until November 25.