Billy Monk’s Medusa and Other Mythic Settings

While flicking through Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History volume III (Phaidon 2014) – a great birthday gift from my Dad – I was transfixed by the following image:

This photograph graces the cover of the book Billy Monk (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011) and it immediately made me want to know more, not only about the photographer, but also about the place where the photographs were taken. As it turned out, both were intimately intertwined. Monk was a bouncer at the Catacombs club in the dock area of Cape Town, South Africa in the 1960s. He started taking photographs of the club and its regulars as a means to make money – by selling the photographs to their subjects. As Parr and Badger confess, they have no idea how successful Monk was at selling his work, but one thing is for sure these photographs are compelling and arresting viewing.

Yet what excites me about them is less the protagonists in their various states of drunkenness or erotic congress, but the fact that these antics tool place before such weird and wonderful wall-paintings. Not only do we find the snake-haired  Medusa/mermaid-like creature of above, but also other mythic creatures.

This strange musician playing before the pyramids:

An odd turtle-like form:

And swirling abstractions accompanying mermaids:

Obviously for Minus Plato the compelling and captivating figure of Medusa is most immediately significant, yet in general Monk’s photographs remind us about a basic component of myth-making, both ancient and modern. What happens in a mythic story cannot be neatly separated from where it happens, whether this is Pentheus in Thebes, Aeneas in Carthage or the locals in the Catacombs. The strange figures on the walls of the Catacombs club bring the ostensible subjects of these photographs of this bouncer-turned-photographer into sharp relief.

Sadly Monk was never able to see his photographs grace the walls of a gallery as he was killed in a brawl on the way to his own exhibition’s opening in 1982. This tragedy adds another tinge of intrigue to these compelling works that record not only those who populated the bar and their epic drinking sessions amid the horror of apartheid-era South Africa, but also an alternative, colourful and mythic stage on which their mundane human antics took place and for which we have Billy Monk to thank for preserving both action and setting.

For more on Billy Monk, go to his estate’s website here.

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