15 May 19 - 29 Jun 19
Land of Ibeji
TJ Boulting is proud to present ‘Land of Ibeji’, a collaborative photographic series by Bénédicte Kurzen and Sanne De Wilde exploring the mythology of twinhood in Nigeria. There has always been a vast fascination for twins around the world, and although many of the myths and stories about twin-hood have faded or been forgotten it is a recurring theme weaving through biblical and cultural storytelling, philosophy and even science. From the Gemini stars Castor and Pollux, to Romulus and Remus creating Rome, and Plato articulating the double nature of humanity, folklorist Alan Dundes defines myth as a sacred narrative that explains how the world and humanity evolved into their present form. Dundes classified a sacred narrative as “a story that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society”. In this body of work the specific Nigerian mythology of twin-hood becomes a way to address in the wider sense themes of identity, genetics, demographics, economy, religion and environmental issues.
West Africa and specifically Yoruba-land (Nigeria’s South West) has ten times more twins than any other region in the world. Ibeji means ‘double birth’ and ‘the inseparable two’ in Yoruba, and stands for the ultimate harmony between two people. Through a visual narrative and an aesthetic language that is meant to reflect and empower the Yoruba culture that celebrates twins, the two photographers extended their gaze beyond appearance - with symmetry and resemblance as tools - to open the eyes to the twin as a mythological figure and a powerful metaphor: for the duality within a human being and the duality we experience in the world that surrounds us.
Communities in Nigeria have developed cultural practices in response to this high twin birth rate that vary from veneration to demonisation. In some areas, shrines are built to worship the spirit of the twin and celebrations are held in their honour. In others, twins are vilified and persecuted for their perceived role in bringing bad luck, in particular to rural communities. The photographers visited three locations for the project, each of which weaves in a new thread to the visual narrative.
To highlight the ‘magical’ and ‘supernatural’, to visualise that what cannot be seen; two colour filters were used in certain pictures, amplifying the duality of two photographers, two individuals, two identities; two perceptions coloured differently. For example the 10 year old sisters Kehinde Deborah and Taiwo Celestine wearing white dresses on a purple mound was created by using a simple purple filter over the flash. The first-born of the twins is known as Taiwo while the second one is called Kehinde. In Yoruba culture the second born twin is actually considered the ‘elder’ twin; Taiwo is sent out by Kehinde first to judge if the world is safe and beautiful. Taiwo means ‘the first twin to taste the world.’ Kehinde means ‘the second-born of the twins’. Colours symbolise contradictory beliefs: purple for the spiritual and heavenly and red for the earthly, danger. Layers of portraiture, double exposure, landscape and still life come together as a visual narrative translating the mythology of twin hood. The photographers used various genres with duality as a key theme: the metaphor and the literal, the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual.
In Yoruba beliefs, each human has a spiritual counterpart, an unborn spirit double. In the case of twins the spiritual double has been born on earth. The friction, between communities celebrating twins and rejecting them, lies in perception of the twin as an extremely powerful spirit. Some see it as threat and as something that cannot remain on earth and has to be sent back to the heavens where it normally resides.
The first destination they visited was the Vine Heritage Home Foundation, an orphanage situated in Gwagwalada, one hour drive from the federal capital, Abuja. In 1876, Mary Slessor, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary largely eradicated the practice of twin-killing in southern Nigeria. The belief being that twins, or any multiple birth, was an abomination and the babies were considered evil and killed. Similarly if a mother died during child birth or while nursing a baby, that baby was buried alive with the deceased mother. Mary Slessor is well known for having stopped the practice of infanticide of twins among the Ibibio people, an ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria. She was able to shift the perception from negative to positive. The orphanage the photographers visited was created by Olusola Stevens and his wife, an affiliate of Christian Missionary foundation, twenty years ago for children whose life was still in danger because of the practice of infanticide by the neighbouring rural Bassa communities. Infanticide still occurs but is a very isolated practice, and not representational of what twin-hood in Nigeria means today. The photographers visited the orphanage and took images of the children in a positive and uplifting way: “We try to find visual methaphors, not to highlight the grim part of the story and the bleak conditions the children live in, but trying to use a colourful, powerful, cooperative visual language in which the children play their part. The image of the hand with the glitter falling upside down is a good example of that. The children were given cookies and we found them cutting up the shiny wrappings the next day turning it into ‘home-made’ glitter to cover their faces and ‘dress up’ for a birthday.”
The focus shifts to the other end of the spectrum in Igbo Ora and Calabar, where twins are venerated and celebrated as a symbol of fertility, good luck and abundance. Igbo Ora, the self-proclaimed ‘Twin Capital of the World’, has earned its nickname by the unusually large number of twin births in the region. Almost each household has twins and twins are seen as a token for good luck, good health and wealth. The cause of this twin density remains mysterious. Although no direct relation between dietary intake and twin births has been proven, a research study carried out by the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital has suggested that a chemical found in the women in the region of Igbo Ora and the peelings of the widely consumed tuber (yams) could be causing twins births. Local people attribute it to a special dish called ‘Ilasa’ a soup that is said to be the secret (ingredient) to having twins. Some others speak about the quality of the water. Another possible explanation is genetics. The first edition of the ‘Twin Festival’ was held in Igbo Ora in November 2018, gathering over 2000 twins, according to the local authorities.
Destination number three, Calabar, is the glue that holds Igbo Ora and Gwagwalada together. Calabar is now named ‘Home of Twins’ by the twin foundation also known as the ‘Mary Slessor Twin Club’ uniting twins all over Cross River State. Mary Slessor is honoured by a statue on one of the main roundabouts in the city where she is depicted holding twins in her arms. In the exhibition as you enter the back gallery you see the masked image at the famous Calabar festival, where every year during Christmas and New Year there is a full week program with masquerades where you can find people in amazing costumes all around the city, a traditional dance performance where each state is represented by a group of dancers and a closing night where several ‘bands’ perform a one hour group show, each with a different storyline and theme performed in sets of songs and dance with an incredible range of custom-made costumes. An astonishing event centered around the Mary Slessor roundabout, a place that honours her legacy.
“We believe ‘Ibeji’ (twins) bring good luck. They represent fertility and bring love, they are a blessing to the family. Once you have twins, people believe that more and more of everything will come to you. Twins are also related to the monkey spirit and more specifically to the Edun monkey. These monkeys always give birth to twins so they are a symbol for the ‘Ibeji’.’’
Nike Davies Okundaye, Yoruba artist and designer.
In the exhibition the photographers created an Ibeji UV ‘shrine’ using Ibeji twin statues and a portrait of a young boy from the orphanage. Twins are believed to have powerful magic and spirituality, and are granted protection by the Orisha Shango. If one twin should die, it represents bad fortune for the parents and the society to which they belong. The parents therefore commission a babalawo to carve a wooden Ibeji to represent the deceased twin, and the parents take care of the figure as if it were a real person. Other than the sex, the appearance of the Ibeji is determined by the sculptor. The parents then dress and decorate the Ibeji to represent their own status, using clothing made from cowrie shells, as well as beads, coins and paint. The Nigerian musician Stiques designed the soundscape which features vocals of Ibejii, an established Nigerian Folklore singer.
Bénédicte Kurzen (born 1980), is a French photographer and photojournalist. She graduated with a Master’s degree in contemporary history from Sorbonne University in Paris. She wrote her final essay about the “myth of the war photographer”, which inspired her to become a visual storyteller herself. For the past ten years, Bénédicte has been covering conflicts and socio-economical changes in Africa. In South Africa, where she was based, she explored some of the deepest social challenges of the post-apartheid society producing “Next of Kin”, “The Boers Last Stand” and “Amaqabane”, on the life of former anti-apartheid combatants. The latest was produced for prestigious World Press Joop Swart Masterclass 2008. In 2011, she received a grant from the Pulitzer Center, which allowed her to produce a body of work on Nigeria, “A Nation Lost to Gods”. Her work has been screened and exhibited at Visa pour l’Image and was nominated for the Visa d’Or in 2012. After becoming a full member of the NOOR agency in 2012, she decided to move to Lagos, from where she could pursue her coverage of Africa, with a focus on Nigeria.Her work has been published in The New York Times, Paris Match, The New Yorker, Le Monde Magazine and Newsweek. Her first exhibition was at TJ Boulting in 2015 with Robin Maddock and Cristina de Middel ‘Shine Ur Eye’ which then travelled to Lagos Photo Festival.
Sanne De Wilde (Belgium, 1987) graduated with a Master in the Fine Arts at KASK in Ghent (BE) with great honours in 2012. Her photo series ‘The Dwarf Empire’ was rewarded with the Photo Academy Award 2012 as well as the International Photography Award Emergentes DST in 2013. Her series ‘Snow White’ was awarded 16ème Prix National Photographie Ouverte and NuWork Award for Photographic Excellence. She was awarded the Nikon Press Award in 2014 and 2016 for most promising young photographer. Her project ‘The Island of the Colorblind’ was exhibited in Rencontres d’Arles in 2018 and was an award-winning book published by Hannibal/Kehrer. She has been internationally published (Guardian, New Yorker, Le Monde, CNN, Vogue) and exhibited (Voies OFF, Tribeca Film Festival, Circulations, Lagos Photo, Lodz Fotofestiwal, IDFA, STAM and EYE). She became a member of NOOR agency in 2017.
‘Land of Ibeji’ was recently named winner of the Portrait Series category at World Press Photo.