West Africa holds the highest record of twins in the world, with a birthrate ten times greater than that of any other region. It also plays host to the greatest disparity in its perception of twins than anywhere else. Whilst one region might celebrate their existence as a symbol of hope, another casts twins as demons, an insidious threat. Intrigued by the manifold cultural practices that surround this phenomenon, photographers Bénédicte Kurzen and Sanne De Wilde travelled across Nigeria, from Gwagwalada, where the consequences of being a twin are most severe, to Igbo Ora, the self-proclaimed twin capital of the world, to explore the rich and complex tales of Ibeji.
The project, which marks Kurzen and De Wilde’s first collaboration, slices through the layers of twinhood to explore not only the mythology of this duality but also their joint venture, an artistic process which united their every move, each becoming an extension of the other. ‘One of us would finish what the other started – not just sentences, but also pictures. The idea was to let go of a sense of ownership completely. One would hand over the camera while shooting, as the other would search for a different lens.’
In chronicling twin culture, its corresponding communities and rituals, the artists were compelled to use visual metaphors to convey spiritual elements not visible to the naked eye. Red and purple colour filters became indicative of the discrepancy between differing spiritual symbols, and their use of mirrors, shadows and double exposed film toy with the representation of these dual realities, offering continuity to a Yoruba photography tradition.
During the course of their journey, Kurzen and De Wilde found themselves subsumed in the lifestyles of their hosts, developing strong bonds with both their photographic subjects and those they met along the way. Forever conscious of their position in this part of the world – that of white, western photographers – the artists were sensitive to the patterns of power that tend to pervade in these circumstances. ‘Neither of us can ignore the persistence of some narratives, tinted even in the slightest by colonialist prejudices. To be aware of that phenomenon is a first step.’
What Land of Ibeji does instead is peel back the layers of the cultural perception of twinhood, a human condition that is by no means exclusive to the people of West Africa. While there is a dark underside to every story – here in the shape of evil spirits and killings – Kurzen and De Wilde are both indebted to the cultures from which they draw, and hopeful in their will to establish a dialogue on differing belief systems around the world. ‘Identical twins are literally a symbol for being the same and different at the same time. Making our differences our ally and not our enemy makes the world a richer place.’