Visions of Nightlife from Johannesburg to Ibiza

Two recent photobooks offer up nostalgia for the dance floor—and imagine the hedonism of a post-pandemic future.

Photographic Visions of Nightlife from Johannesburg to Ibiza
Dave Swindells, Thinking big and living large in Pacha, 1989, from Ibiza ’89

Photobooks – September 28, 2021

By Lou Stoppard

To be in a nightclub. Bodies moving in rhythm. The smells—sweat, cigarettes, that sweet tang of a smoke machine. And the beat. The beat, which rewires your movements, your mind. The sway, the ecstasy of release. In that moment, you are saved.

Such memories have been the stuff of lockdown pipe dreams. It is, therefore, both diverting and bittersweet to browse two recently published books on clubbing—one expansive in its broad geography and history, the other contrastingly specific. Ten Cities: Clubbing in Nairobi, Cairo, Kyiv, Johannesburg, Berlin, Naples, Luanda, Lagos, Bristol, Lisbon 1960–March 2020 (2020) is an ambitious record of these select music scenes. Dave Swindells’s Ibiza ’89 (2020) brings together images Swindells made on a short magazine assignment in the summer of 1989, sparked by the influence of the island on the U.K.’s then thriving acid house and rave scenes, known as the Second Summer of Love.

Bernard Matussiere, Fela Kuti with the queens, Stratford, London, 1983
Bernard Matussiere, Fela Kuti with the queens, Stratford, London, 1983
Courtesy the artist

The books take distinct, even opposing, views. Ten Cities tries to push against the idea that clubbing is a frivolous or universal experience, citing, through exhaustive essays from various international figures, the political, economic, geographic, and local particularities of various nightlife scenes. Clubs, the book’s editors Johannes Hossfeld Etyang, Joyce Nyairo, and Florian Sievers explain, are “prisms and laboratories of society and the city.” Ten Cities centers Africa’s music and culture, and makes 1960 the narrative starting point because that was when independence swept the continent. “As a general rule, the history of club culture is told without the African musical metropoles,” Hossfeld Etyang writes. The authors position Nairobi as their project’s home—a vivid picture is painted of the Starlight nightclub where Barack Obama Sr. danced in the 1960s—before veering off to other cities, chosen in an attempt to disrupt established ideas of certain cities as clubbing meccas and others as backwaters or slums.

Dave Swindells, Go-go dancing superstars at Ku, 1989, from Ibiza ’89

Dave Swindells, Hug club: celebrating making it through the night
(just about) at Amnesia
, 1989, from Ibiza ’89

Amusingly, Ibiza ’89 does everything Ten Cities tries to avoid; it is Eurocentric and fawning (Ibiza, we learn, is “Europe’s best party island,” according to the music producer Terry Farley), and it paints clubbing as hedonistic and vaguely manic, focusing on the young, the beautiful. Still, the photographs are lovely to look at.

In the 1930s, the South African musician and author Todd Matshikiza, then a young boy, attended a party thrown by the musician Boet Gashe, an event he recalled in 1957, in Drum magazine: “You saw the delirious effect of perpetual motion. . . . Perpetual motion in a musty hold where man makes friends without restraint.” The line, which captures the heady feel of clubbing, the existential epiphanies found in ephemeral places, could be a description of any one of the photographs of gyrating revelers in Ibiza ’89, but it is quoted in Ten Cities. Its inclusion there highlights the challenge of analyzing, or indeed photographing, club culture. How does one balance a focus on the shared and at the same time on the specific, the local, the “scene”?

Jürgen Schadeberg, The Jazzolomos, 1953
Jürgen Schadeberg, The Jazzolomos: Jacob “Mzala” Lepers (bass), Sol “Beegeepee” Klaaste (piano), and Benni “Gwigwi” Mrwebi (alto sax), Johannesburg, 1953
© the artist
Mosa'ab Elshamy, Mahraganat, Cairo, 2013
Mosa’ab Elshamy, Mahraganat, Cairo, 2013
Courtesy the artist
Frágil birthday party at Convento do Beato, Lisbon, 1996
Frágil birthday party at Convento do Beato, Lisbon, 1996
Courtesy LuxFrágil

It is notable that so many astounding clubbing photography projects exist—for example, Tod Papageorge’s Studio 54 or Tom Wood’s Looking for Love. Yet nearly all work around familiar themes: beauty, sex, and glamour, peppered with moments of sexual rejection and flashes of exhaustion. Ten Cities is smart in not scrupling to celebrate these familiar elements, while simultaneously homing in on the unexplored, the theoretical, the minutiae. We are reminded that clubs are shaped not just by dancing bodies and good DJs but also by transport links, alcohol taxes, parking spaces, coups, elections, and governments. Yet gems by Jürgen Schadeberg and Tobias Zielony lend a “God, to have been there” air and offset some of the more intensive academic positing.

Margarida Martins and Mário Marques, Absolut Citron Party, Frágil, Lisbon, ca. late 1980s

Tobias Zielony, Shine, from the series Maskirovka, Kyiv, 2017
Courtesy the artist and KOW, Berlin

For those convinced that COVID-19 has decimated nightclubs, it will be uplifting to remember that they have survived big trouble in the past, be it a monthlong, dusk-to-dawn curfew in Nairobi in 1982, regulations that banned amateur bands in Kyiv in the early 1970s, or ad hoc surveillance, such as that of Fela Kuti, whose growing popularity with Lagos crowds briefly irked the Nigerian government, which, ironically, raided him right ahead of FESTAC ’77, a landmark international festival celebrating African culture.

If Ten Cities encourages reflection, Ibiza ’89 thrills to escapism, embracing the cliché of sun, sea, sand, and sex—the gaze on a thong-clad bottom, the close crops on beautiful youths, the sweat on an entangled couple. It is a fascinating lesson in how myths are made, how rose-tinted glasses are applied. In the book’s introduction, Swindells recalls how clubbers on the island would tell him that 1989 was too late, he should have come earlier: “You’d have loved it here in 1987!”

Dave Swindells, The bold and the beautiful: great pattern clashing from Boy George and the gang at Amnesia, 1989
Dave Swindells, The bold and the beautiful: great pattern clashing from Boy George and the gang at Amnesia, 1989, from Ibiza ’89
All photographs by Dave Swindells courtesy the artist

And yet, despite Swindells’s mocking tone, his book is driven by the same nostalgia, proffering the idea that those were the glory years, that later, in Farley’s estimation, the scene “lost its character.” The beauty of the pictures and the hazy memories tussle with the reality briefly alluded to in Alix Sharkey’s 1989 essay, produced on the same commission as the images, with its smattered references to burnout, addiction, and local distress. But today’s zeitgeist is nostalgic too. Just weeks after its publication, Ibiza ’89 sold out, trading for triple the price on fashion resale sites—evidence of the current thirst for the retro in fashion, photography, and, most visibly, on Instagram. Still, how appropriate. As both Ten Cities and Ibiza ’89 show us, great clubs cannot exist without some nostalgia, without the sense of time slipping away, without FOMO, without the intoxicating promise of unrepeatable experiences, all bolstered by fables and hearsay.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 244, “Cosmologies,” under the column “Viewfinder.”Lou Stoppard is a writer and curator based in London. She is the editor of Fashion Together: Fashion’s Most Extraordinary Duos on the Art of Collaboration (2017), Shirley Baker (2019), and Pools: Lounging, Diving, Floating, Dreaming: Picturing Life at the Swimming Pool (2020).

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