Land Of Ibeji Zooms In On The Mythology Of Twinhood In Nigeria

Historically, humans have always relied on myth to make sense of twins all over the world. This photographic project looks at how twinhood has been understood amongst the Yoruba and the Igbo of Nigeria

by GRIOT - Published on 09/08/2021
Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018, ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde

In their collaborative photographic project dubbed Land of Ibeji, French and Belgian photographers Benedicte Kurzen and Sanne De Wilde set out to capture the capriccio of twinhood in Nigeria. The project juxtaposes sets of twins in whimsical, yet remarkable expressions of artistic photography.

Genetically speaking, the Yoruba of West Africa are responsible for the highest numbers of fraternal twins globally at 4.4 percent of all births. According to Taiwo Olaleye-Oruene et. al, this fact has led to the development of a complex twin belief system within the traditional Yoruba religion over many years.

While the Yoruba historically celebrated the birth of twins, the Igbo were terrified by the occasion. The Igbo perceived twins as bad omen and believed that their existence brought inevitable calamity to the community, making twin murder common among the Igbo well into the 19th Century.

Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018

Colonialism further fostered the practice to combat the increasing Igbo population  in  colonial Nigeria since a lower population was easier to control. Today, long after twin murder was abandoned, Igbo twins are still often treated as separate siblings—dressed differently, or led to believe that they have different dates of birth.

Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018
Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018 ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde

In one picture from the project, a set of twins lay on their backs side by side. A bunch of what looks like peacock flowers are placed between them, seemingly separating them. One of the twin’s eyes are open, lost in thought but fully conscious while the second twin is ostensibly asleep and unbothered. Their dressing and body composure around the flowers is discernibly peculiar. The first twin, who clenches some of the flowers in her hand, dons a sky-blue dress, mirroring a clear open sky in good weather. The second, sleeping twin wears a camouflage dress which represents hiding and opacity. In contrast to her sister, the second twins hands lay loosely beside the flowers as if to depict the lacking recognition of the simple beauty of their special siblinghood.

Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018, ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde

Another image from the project shows a set of twins standing facing each other, their gazes raised towards the sky. The twins are portrayed such that that one experiences the sun’s powerful rays of light while the other one is depicted in the shadow. There is a striking similarity in the choice of clothes and colours in the two pictures. Just like in the first picture, the blue stands in for freedom and contentment, while camouflage signals wilderness, hiding and imminent danger.

Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018, ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde

‘Land of Ibeji’ presents a narrative of twinhood in Nigeria with a contiguity between the Yoruba and the Igbo. The Yoruba word Ibeji, which loosely translates to twins, has historically been symbolized through wooden statuettes created in line with a refined artistic tradition representing the souls of deceased infant twins via sculpture. Ibeji statues are carved in the memory of dead twins as they are believed to continue living even after death.  On the other hand, living twins are treated with utmost dignity and honour, as they personify Shango, the God of thunder and lightning.  There is a great communal investment in the care and the protection of  twins as the neglect of one or both —it is believed — could lead to misfortunes in the community.

Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018, ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde
Benedicte Kurzen e Sanne De Wilde, Land of Ibeji, 2018, ©Benedicte Kurzen, Sanne De Wilde

While this mesmerizing collaborative photographic project centres the Yoruba through its name, it also takes on a broader perspective, showcasing customs and superstition pertaining to the converging and diverging mythology of twins in Nigeria. It does so by visually colligating Yoruba and Igbo cultures to reiterate the symbolic significance of twinhood in the former. Even so, it would be interesting to know the reasons why only the Igbo and the Yoruba were picked and exploring whether and why they are representative for Nigerian twin mythology. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of contrasting images of twins aptly illustrates a layered friction between two distinct mythologies of twinhood in Nigeria.

Sitienei Kiprono 

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