A new book, Land of Ibeji by Sanne De Wilde and Bénédicte Kurzen, examines the different cultural responses to twinhood in Nigeria, with colorful portraits of twins and doppelgängers alike.
Twins: ominous, or auspicious? In West Africa, the mythologizing of twinhood has created contrasting superstitions; for some cultures, like the Igbo, twins are regarded as bad omens, a disruption of the natural order. The Yoruba, however, see twins as a blessing, even going so far as to view them as supernatural beings.
The photographers Sanne De Wilde and Bénédicte Kurzen, awarded 1st prize of the World Press Photo Contest, Portrait series, in 2019, traveled to Nigeria to explore dualities in the concept of twinhood, culminating in the collaborative book Land of Ibeji. The title is taken from the Yoruba word “ibeji” meaning “double”, or, more metaphorically, “the inseparable two”. From twins to doppelgängers, they photographed locals in radiant light, creating kaleidoscopes, mirror images, and collages to heighten the natural symmetry. In an opening image, two men—or is it one?—are mirrored, their faces overlapping in near-identical profiles under neon yellow light, with a shock of blue where one face touches the other.
Though some photographic techniques like mirroring are at times repeated, each image is remarkably different. Bursting with brilliant light, De Wilde and Kurzen find unique ways to showcase the shared (and different) traits of each set of twins, from outlines of identical shadows, to reflections in pools of water. The indistinguishability between identical twins is striking; and fittingly, thanks to the collaborative nature of the project, it’s impossible to distinguish Kurzen’s input from De Wilde’s, the two artists melding into one through the book. “I learnt that twinhood is about unity in double—about celebrating the biological connection between siblings and, ironically, considering sameness as something that sets you apart from others,” said De Wilde in a statement.
Kurzen and De Wilde also explore the relationship between the people they photographed and the environment they inhabit. From patterns on clothes matching the colors of the sky to the negative space between tree leaves, they find visual parallels that imbue the book with elements of the natural world.
The artists were also struck by another aspect of the culture around twinhood pertaining to death and mourning. The Yoruba have a particular ritual to mourn the passing of a twin; in an area with a relatively high infant mortality rate, the death of a twin is sadly not uncommon. A shrine is erected, typically with a carved figure to represent the dead, but sometimes a photograph suffices: photography can hold sacred power, too.
Ultimately, Kurzen and De Wilde found that there wasn’t a singular narrative around the concept of twins, but rather, room for individual interpretation. “The idea of twinhood was a richer and more universal subject than expected. Every time we mention the project to someone, it encourages stories, references and personal experiences,” said Kurzen. “It happened so often, which was confirmation that we were working on something that fascinates people beyond Nigeria, and beyond that physical resemblance. That’s the true power of a myth: it triggers imagination and has the ability to open a hidden world.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
Land of Ibeji, by Sanne de Wilde and Bénédicte Kurzen, published by Hatje Cantz, 54€.