Glass reviews Billy Monk’s photographs of the outcasts of apartheid at The Container in Tokyo

Glass reviews Billy Monk: Defiance and Decadence Under Apartheid at The Container in Tokyo, and discusses the exhibition with its curator, Shai Ohayon

AT A glance, you might think Billy Monk shot the photographs of drunk Asian men in a Tokyo bar. One lies sprawled on his seat, in the same position as a typical Japanese salaryman passed out on the pavement after a night of carousing in Shinjuku. Another is singing into the microphone in the manner of someone at a karaoke bar; others huddle together at a table to drink away their hard day at work.

The Catacombs, 14 December 1968, Billy Monk. Photograph courtesy of the Billy Monk Collection

Even a white sailor holding a stalk of iris makes you wonder if Monk had taken the picture in Japan: the flower is a popular motif in Japanese art. But he took these photographs primarily at The Catacombs, a seedy nightclub on the edge of Cape Town, near the harbour, at the height of apartheid in the late 1960s, and the drunk Asian men were mostly sailors from Japan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, on shore leave in search of a bit of fun.

Billy Monk: Defiance and Decadence Under Apartheid, a compelling exhibition at The Container, a small gallery inside Bross, a trendy hair salon in Nakameguro, Tokyo, has reintroduced Monk’s photography to a new audience. Curated by gallery director, Shai Ohayon, in collaboration with the Billy Monk Collection in Cape Town and Boogie Woogie Photography in Hong Kong, the show features twenty of Monk’s photographs that return us to The Catacombs, and to a time some in South Africa prefer to forget. But with white nationalism and race politics on the rise again, the show seems timely – and relevant.


The Catacombs, April 3, 1969, Billy Monk. Photograph courtesy of the Billy Monk Collection

In its catalogue, Craig Cameron-Macintosh, director and custodian of the Billy Monk Collection, describes The Container’s show as Monk’s “long-awaited second chapter.” Monk was tragically shot dead in 1982 on his way to see his first solo exhibition at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg. Cameron-Macintosh writes: “His life may have been cut short but his brilliance shines through in his photographs.”

What shines through is, again, the surprising presence of a Japanese visual language. His images bring to mind the street photography of post-war Japanese photography, particularly from the Provoke movement of the late 1960s – exactly the same handful of years that Monk was taking his pictures – with practitioners such as Masahisa Fukase, Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, and Eikoh Hosoe. Tomatsu called it “beggar photography.” After the war, they had challenged the conventions of traditional photography by making images of people in provocative and surrealistic ways, often grotesque.

Like Provoke’s oeuvre, Monk’s pictures have the same gritty and authentic quality. He recorded ordinary people living – and revelling – in a divisive time. You can feel his visceral response to his subjects that existed on the fringes of society. By separating the individual from the collective, Monk captured their individuality in its entirety: the drag queen, the midget, the pair of gay lovers, the interracial couple, the prostitutes and their clients, the drunk Asian sailors, the white and black South Africans mingling fearlessly.

There is also an intimacy between Monk and his subjects, as though he was experiencing the world through their experience of the world. Perhaps he wanted to understand the intensity of their lives during apartheid. Whatever it was, it is evident in his images that real life persisted despite draconian laws, and that the quotidian is often very different from rhetoric. In his pictures, he separated them from society and took their pictures unflinchingly, letting the light of his camera’s flash reveal every detail of each figure.


The Catacombs, February 9, 1968, Billy Monk. Photograph courtesy of the Billy Monk Collection


The individual in Monk’s photographs can be harsh and yet, poetic. He did not try to hide their individuality – that is the power of his photography – and they trusted him because he was existing with them on the margins of society. He was also a bouncer at The Catacombs. Although he was white and straight, well, almost, it is clear in his photographs that he felt a connection with those marginalised by South Africa’s white nationalist policies. Like the disenfranchised, he found a haven in The Catacombs.

“Billy Monk’s body of work reveals a unique and hidden gathering place in apartheid South Africa,” Cameron-Macintosh states in the catalogue. “A bubble of existence, created by people against the regime. A place for jazz music, dancing, drinking and unbridled joy, and all captured by Monk, who was no outsider but one of them.”

In Monk’s short life, we learned that he was a drifter, but I’ll let the curators and custodians do the mythmaking. Looking at his photographs on The Container’s walls, I like to think of him as a photographer first, then everything else: bouncer, poacher, crook, traffic cop, smuggler, railwayman, diamond diver, and an all-round brawler. But he failed to make his name as a photographer as he couldn’t show his photographs without breaking the law.

A decade later, another photographer, Jac de Villiers, came across his archive of well-documented negatives and contact sheets which until then had been kept hidden inside a box in his old studio. He then organised a retrospective with famed photographer, David Goldblatt, at the Market Gallery. Monk did not attend the vernissage because he was off diving for alluvial diamonds, and then was killed two weeks later on his way to see the exhibition for the first time.

The Container, an actual shipping container inside the salon, appears to be a perfect place to show Monk’s images. In a way, the tight space recalls The Catacombs: Ohayon even blew up some of Monk’s pictures of the revellers to evoke the atmosphere of the nightclub. After getting my hair trimmed by Yuta Hoshi, the owner of Bross, I discussed Monk with Ohayon.


The Catacombs, March 3, 1968, Billy Monk. Photograph courtesy of the Billy Monk Collection

How did you come across Monk’s works?
Craig [Cameron-Mackintosh] was in Tokyo and left me a note at the gallery. I had people leaving notes for me a few times, usually artists, and it was the first time I was intrigued enough to reply. When I met him for coffee, he brought a shoebox full of Monk’s prints. I was instantly taken by the images – and Monk’s story.

What was your initial response?
To be honest, I was very surprised by them. They are very powerful. Monk definitely had a way with people. There is something very natural and intimate in the photographs. And they feel super-contemporary, like they were taken last week. The only clues for the age of the photographs is the clothes and furniture.

– and the hair.
Yes, the women’s hairdos are awesome, very much of that period. There are these two women with black wigs, looking like twins getting off with a couple of guys. Very funny. Awesome big hairdo! A lot of them are quite humorous. Monk had a very good eye and a bit of cheek. I really appreciate his humour. The photos are quite bizarre. His background adds to their historical significance but in terms of aesthetics, they are very strong and captivating.

Why do you think Craig approached you and not another gallery?
He did some research about galleries in Tokyo and was interested in my curation, and the space itself as well. I guess some of it is because the gallery is set inside a container and Cape Town, being a port city, has a huge traffic of sailors and shipping people. Afterwards, I obviously also researched Monk.

And you felt his work would fit The Container?
The Container is all about enabling people to interact with art. I tend to like things with a conceptual edge or with social-activist flair, and these photographs fit exactly with what I like to show. It’s also the first time I am showing the work of a dead artist. It’s not proper contemporary, but the pictures feel very contemporary. The photographs have been shown already in the US, at New York’s International Centre of Photography and SFMOMA.


The Catacombs, October 1968, Billy Monk. Photograph courtesy of the Billy Monk Collection


What’s the history of the Billy Monk Collection?
Craig bought the entire archive from Monk’s family. The photographs haven’t been shown in years and he wanted to put them back in circulation. He has also a lot of negatives and contact sheets with were hand-printed by Monk, and with notes. Quite incredible. I think that in the future he will hand the collection down. He has a genuine interest in bringing Monk’s photographs back to be shown and documented because he himself is from Cape Town. Apparently, there is a Hollywood film being made about Monk now.

The photos show us that life persists despite oppression.
Yeah, of course. People do that everywhere. Life doesn’t just stop from going on. Gay people are still gay, trans people are still trans, prostitutes still work, people hang out. It is human nature. You cannot stop it from happening. This is why I love these photos so much. They are relevant under any context of oppression. In the US, or Russia, Venezuela, Israel. In the end humanity and human spirit is stronger than any rules or restrictions.


What is your approach to The Container’s exhibition?
I wanted to put an “Asian perspective” as I am showing the exhibition in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and so many Asians were part of that scene. I think it makes the collection very interesting, and in other exhibitions there wasn’t really any emphasis on that.

Do you know anything about the Asians in his photographs?
Some of them were sailors, some business visitors, or tourists. Many Japanese, some Chinese, could be local Malaysians too. Many of the guys I saw in the photos look very Japanese to me, possibly a few Koreans, but in the 60s it would be very unlikely they would have been Koreans there.

After all, the Catacombs was in the docks area.
Yeah, exactly. Many sailors would come in uniforms, but it seems that the Japanese sailors would change into suits before going out. Some things never change, I guess. The main drink was brandy and coke, apparently, and the sailors liked hard liquor.

How was the public’s response so far?
The response has been really great. Very busy opening. Very warm reception. People really engaged with the photographs, I think, and a repeated comment is they look very contemporary, and still very relevant … and that the photographs look “joyful.”

You have lived a sort of Monk’s life.
I have a weakness to all forms of debauchery. I also like the feeling of being defiant, especially of any rules that were designed to disrespect people.

by Peter Yeoh

Billy Monk: Defiance and Decadence Under Apartheid at The Container in Tokyo is on until January 6, 2020