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Cobain’s last photographer turns his lens to African music

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Best known for taking the last professional images of Kurt Cobain before his suicide, French photographer Youri Lenquette’s latest exhibition reveals an eye now firmly fixed on Africa’s most vibrant musicians.

A long-time documenter of punk, rock and grunge stars, Lenquette is just as likely to be found on a Dakar terrace or Abidjan club 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.

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‘SOUL OF AFRICA’ IN HIS WORK: French photographer Youri Lenquette at his home in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Best known for taking the last professional images of Kurt Cobain, Lenquette’s latest exhibition, Youri Doesn’t Sleep, reveals an eye now firmly fixed on Africa’s most vibrant musicians. Pictures: AFPPASSIONATE: Youri Lenquette says there are 'heaps' of musicians he has yet to photograph, despite the array of personalities he has already worked with.

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 and dubbed him a Frenchman “who has the soul of Africa” in his work.

“When I saw him, I knew that he could put Africa on display, he could show off African artists,” N’Dour said.

Lenquette’s images were never meant to hang on a gallery wall, said Vincent Berniere, the exhibition’s curator. They were originally shot for album sleeves and promo material.

But unconsciously, Berniere believes, the Frenchman has adopted a long tradition of west African photo-portraits led by figures such as Malian photographer Malick Sidibe.

Viewers observe Ivorian reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly sitting astride a bright blue motorcycle, surrounded by a young entourage, or Cape Verde’s late soul diva Cesaria Evora, known for her sad ballads, breaking into laughter with her friends.

N’Dour makes an appearance himself, sitting in a giant frame, while Papa Wemba, the Congolese “king of rumba” who collapsed on stage in Abidjan last year and died, shows off his nation’s sharp-suited “sapeur” style.

PASSIONATE: Youri Lenquette says there are 'heaps' of musicians he has yet to photograph, despite the array of personalities he has already worked with.

Born in Cahors, south-western France in 1956, and raised in the city of Nice, former music journalist Lenquette 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 Kurt Cobain pointing a gun at the camera while looking frail in a tattered sweater – an image which blazed across the pages of now defunct French rock magazine Best.

Two months later, Cobain shot himself in the head, thereafter lending a disturbing quality to Lenquette’s picture. That year, the rock journalist became a full-time photographer.

Recalling Cobain, Lenquette crossed him so often during the height of grunge that he “adopted me as a big brother”.

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 photographer said.

When Lenquette converted to Islam to marry his wife, he chose to take the same first name as Ibrahim Ferrer, who joined Buena Vista Social Club later in life and died in 2005, linking the photographer’s musical past with his spiritual present.

Now in his early sixties, 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 onto 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, an albino Malian singer-songwriter who helped pioneer Afro Pop and is sometimes called “the Golden Voice of Africa”, is his next dream project. – AFP


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