Best known for taking the last professional images of musician Kurt Cobain before his suicide, French photographer Youri Lenquette’s newest exhibition reveals an eye now firmly fixed on Africa’s most vibrant musicians.
A longtime documenter of punk, rock and grunge stars, Lenquette is these days just as likely to be found on a Dakar terrace or an Abidjan club dance floor, rubbing shoulders with the artists who have made those cities’ vibes famous.
His new exhibition, Youri Doesn’t Sleep, is on show in Dakar, where he has lived since 2010 with his Senegalese wife Adja and two children, and is filled with stars drawn from the worlds of reggae, rumba and pop.
The undisputed king of Senegal’s music scene, Youssou N’Dour, has called him a friend since they met in Paris in the early 1990s.
“When I saw him, I knew that he could put Africa on display, he could show off African artists,” N’Dour said.
Born in Cahors in southwestern France in 1956 and raised in the city of Nice, the former music journalist first picked up a camera in his late teens to provide photos to go with his early writing.
He gained notoriety in 1994 for portraying troubled Nirvana star Cobain pointing a gun at the camera. The image of the frail-looking musician in a tattered sweater was blazed across the pages of now-defunct French rock magazine Best.
Two months later, Cobain shot himself in the head, lending a disturbing quality to Lenquette’s picture. That year, the rock journalist became a full-time photographer.
Recalling Cobain, Lenquette crossed paths with him so often during the height of grunge that he “adopted me as a big brother”, he recounted in an interview, peering through his trademark giant glasses.
Cobain’s death so affected him, Lenquette said, that his work had to move away from the “live fast, die young” philosophy of grunge.
He went on to photograph everyone from Icelandic songstress Björk to anarchic rocker Iggy Pop, and formed a close bond with Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club.
But Latin American and African music provided “something much more alive”, the photo-grapher said.
When Lenquette converted to Islam to marry his wife, he chose to take the same first name as Ibrahim Ferrer, who joined the Buena Vista Social Club later in life and died in 2005, linking the photographer’s musical past with his spiritual present.
Now that Lenquette is in his early 60s, life is no less busy with two young children and a full schedule of shoots, shows and celebrity mates, he says, sitting in a garden full of his photos transposed on to giant tarpaulins.
There are, he maintains, “heaps” of musicians he has yet to photograph, despite the amazing array of styles and personalities he has already represented in his work.
Salif Keita, a Malian singer-songwriter with albinism who helped to pioneer Afro-pop and is sometimes called “the golden voice of Africa”, is his next dream project. – AFP