Review – Billy Monk’s vision of debauchery in ’60s Cape Town

2011-02-12 20:55

It would probably be hard to find images with enough bite to rival Billy Monk’s exposé of Cape Town’s white night life in the 1960s. A selection of 47 prints by the now legendary photographer, taken in the city’s nightclubs between 1967 and 1969, is on exhibition at the Brodie/Stevenson in Johannesburg.

Although taken with the absolutely mundane intentions of regular partygoers, the photos carry a particular retrospective subversive edge.

These pictures are much more powerful when read in the context of the puritan atmosphere of the Afrikaner nationalist social milieu of their day.

And how apt it is that they were made during the rare time when apartheid South Africa found itself without a president, Dr Eben Dönges having fallen into a coma just before he was inaugurated as state president.

François Naudé was then called upon to fill in as ex-officio. So Afrikanerdom was poetically fatherless in the fatherland. Hence, when the cat’s away the mice will party, and Monk kept a photographic record of the revelry.

Monk’s images perhaps derive their bite from the fact that their subjects did not know they would end up on gallery walls under posterity’s gaze.

So the debauchery, drunken parade and intemperance of the night are as bare as some of the boys and girls depicted.

In an image called 50 Catacombs, a woman is captured showing her boobs to two male revellers.

In other spectacles, perhaps betraying Monk’s voyeurism, drunken lovers are caught making out in the darker corners of the nightclub. There is a comedy of sorts here, too, as the camera exposes passed-out boozers knocked out blank.

As far as the aesthetic requirement is concerned, Monk’s work is strengthened by his unpretentious approach. He was, after all, not creating with the gallery as a destination, but for the sheer enjoyment of his subject.

Monk was born in 1937 and worked as a nightclub bouncer for Les Catacombs Club in Cape Town during the late 1960s.

He was about 30 years of age at the time and he took pictures of the partying patrons for a fee; so these images are culled from this body of work.

He stopped taking photographs at the club at around 1969. His contact sheets and negatives were discovered in a studio by Jac de Villiers 10 years after Monk quit the club.

De Villiers arranged the first exhibition of the work in 1982 at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg.

Monk never made it to the opening: he was shot dead a week later in a fight while en route to see the show, so he never saw his own exhibition.

Running concurrently at the gallery is an exhibition of video work by Dineo Seshee Bopape, an installation titled Bird’s Milk. Bopape’s work sits quite uncomfortably next to Monk’s pictures.

Her playful experiment with the “painterliness” of video should perhaps be seen on its own.

» Nightclub Photographs is on at Brodie/Stevenson in Braamfontein until February 18. It will travel to the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town and open on March 1.

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