2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards Entrant

Author: Aaron Edwards

urban Atlantis, Green Market Square might appear accidentally. Accessible only
through side alleys or narrow streets, perhaps through a wrong turn from drunken
Long Street, it seems to have its own eco-system, its own people, its own
culture. Built by the Dutch Burghers in 1696, declared a ‘national monument’ by
the apartheid Government in 1961, it has had three main occupations: first, a
slave market; then, a vegetable market; now, a flea market.

Stalls sit on cobbles like beach
huts, awkwardly clumped in meandering lines. The routes often lead to dead ends
like a poorly planned one-way system. Rusty scaffolding and off-white cotton
sheets create an eerie process of serenading as the toothy diamond grins peer
out (and in). These facial expressions seem autonomous from the deflated,
sun-stroked bodies methodically beating drums or slouching in wicker chairs.
Some get a burst of vivacity as you walk past and begin to gesticulate with a
carousel of *** objects that repeat themselves from stall to stall like
cinema trailers on a loop. Bangles, bamboo bags, necklaces, earrings, giraffes,
elephants, and little black golliwog girls made of beads, each with braided
hair, standing in size order, like obedient sisters. Another path may lead to
the art sector. Cloth-laden pictures of black stick figures silhouetted against
the setting sun, some holding stick-babies and dancing joyfully beneath Table
Mountain. Other galleries house chipboard canvas paintings of townships, with
tin can segments (Coca Cola) glued or
nailed-on to represent ribbed roofs. Most depicted shacks are anonymous, but
some have crudely written labels; always the same three: a barbershop, a phone
box, an AIDS clinic. One gesticulator says, ‘Look. Where the black people live.
You want to buy?’ I did. And I hated that I did. It made me just like all the
others; the ones who take ‘Township Tours’ dressed in over-pocketed safari
shorts and baseball caps, hungry for another ‘authentic’ African experience,
adding yet another cultural artefact to the mantel piece; another notch on the
tourist’s bedpost.

The stalls are surrounded by a
tightly-knit congregation of Art-Deco buildings. The colossal Park Inn with a giant clock protruding
from the centre in typical Amsterdam-townhouse-style.  Variously-plotted outdoor cafes, indistinct, parasol-littered
(Coca Cola). A Methodist Church
fronted by seventeen stone arches, fourteen latticed windows and two white
notice boards. Each building seems to bow to The Old Town House, cordoned off
at a slight distance on the Western side of the Square: a mathematical marvel
of blazing white pillars and symmetrical black window blocks. It houses the Max
Michaelis Collection, a rare assortment of 17th century Flemish and
Dutch ‘Masters’ art; a cosseted relic of the ‘Dutch Golden Age’, when
Netherlandish culture reigned supreme at the height of colonisation. The
hallmark of such paintings – other than their commissioning by wealthy
individuals – is their depiction of everyday life; close attention paid to the
tiny details of ordinary, commonplace scenes. These details are intended to
speak beyond the canvas. A carefully angled fork may convey a particular
moralistic message about violence. A folded tablecloth may speak of the
designation of class or social hierarchy. No object is expendable. Max
Michaelis didn’t paint, he only bought. He first arrived in Cape Town in 1876,
shortly after which he moved to Kimberley, for the same reason everyone else
did. Thirty-seven diamond-encrusted years later he donated his expensively
acquired collection to the Union Government, shortly after which he became Sir
Max Michaelis.

I left the market with my sunny
township trophy tucked under my arm. A flea. I wanted my trophy to be
different, I wanted the painting to be subversive, in a way that excused me
somehow. I hoped the original artist had inserted those tin can segments
deliberately; a sarcastic gesture of disdain to the west, taking that potent
symbol and flagship of the capitalist ethic and etching it into the heart of
these glorified ghettos, onto the very roofs over the black stick figures’
heads, as if to scorn, ‘Yours Sincerely, Coca Cola’. But I fear there is no
subtext; no retort; no seething revolution on the horizon; just happy apathy.
Demand. Supply. Survival. Blind to the scenes they sell, the eyes in the wicker
chairs only look to the next browsing westerner: the next Max, the next flea.