Haggling at the Targetplace

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Feb. 23, 2005 


I had to run a few errands last week, so I ventured a quick stop at Target to get some shampoo, batteries and culture.

Between electronics and household staples, Target took customers on a limited-time journey to the "Global Bazaar," featuring imports from five regions: Latin America, Europe, Africa, India and Asia.

Strolling the aisles of Target's marketplace, I noticed the imports were divided even more specifically. Do you prefer run-of-the-mill India or British colonial India? Thankfully, Target spared shoppers the line of slaves from the Dutch East Indies Company collection.

Imports are hot now. Out of the overstuffed leather couch and splatter-paint wall art of the 1980s and early 1990s, the turn of the millennium signified a return to eclectic cultural interior decorating. Whereas the focal point of our coffee tables once was a fiber-optic neon sculpture, now we stare in awe at the hand-beaded Chinese accent pillow or the hand-carved West African tribal mask. In the heat of an ever-growing, globalized economy -- where the U.S. dollar is always the bottom line -- we've found uncorrupted, good karma in surrounding ourselves with antiques and multicultural art.

According to an article by The Associated Press, the products at the Global Bazaar are "authentic items purchased directly from the country they represent, including African gourds handmade by villagers."

As I meandered past Target's African collection, I noticed a sculpture. It looked pretty authentic.

It was a soapstone figurine of a woman with projectile breasts and a perfectly circular head. Then I remembered I had seen this same sculpture in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Green Point market -- a bustling center of commerce, brimming with Western tourists trying to snatch up as many "authentic" African souvenirs as possible.

Then that soapstone figurine reminded me of another soapstone figurine I had seen at the Livingstone market in Zimbabwe. Same projectile breasts, same round head.

And that definitely reminded me of another I had seen in Makgadikgadi, Botswana, at a roadside vendor's stand.

With replicas of soapstone figurines at every market, including the American retail market, I couldn't help but wonder if our 21st-century desire to collect authenticity is a futile aspiration.

Today, when we purchase imported items as "conversation pieces," we're looking for ways to make ourselves feel well-traveled, cultured and open-minded in the eyes of our peers.

You see this basket? It's very, very old. It was handmade by a Tswana tribesman. Legend has it, it was meant to be the receptacle of one's soul as one's spirit crossed into the afterlife.

And I just made up that story. But as a collector of "primitive artifacts," didn't I sound intellectual? Somehow, contemporary items just wouldn't accomplish the same effect, given that we want to seem more refined than the material things with which we surround ourselves.

The dilemma with searching for authenticity is that either nothing or everything in this world is inherently authentic. If we define authenticity as "unique and untainted," by being mass produced for consumers -- whether in Target or Africa -- a soapstone figurine cannot be authentic. On the other hand, if we define authenticity as anything culturally "real," then even the knock-off Hilfiger clothes sold at a South African flea market should be considered authentic, despite their lack of exoticism.

We're on a mission to salvage the remnants of our cultural distinctions before globalization homogenizes everything, and in doing so, we might be neglecting to recognize that non-Western societies are just as much their contemporary cultures as they are their traditional ones. Perhaps the authenticity fetish is our own guilty conscience for the Westernization of the world.

Nothing sold in bulk by a national retailer could be considered as original, anyway -- even if it were only for a limited time.


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