Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 10, 2017
Philip M. Peek, ed. Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 376 pp.; 36 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (9780253223074)
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Existing African arts and cultures scholarship’s disproportionate attention on how twin births constitute a problem to parents and community is challenged in Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures, as the volume takes a dialectic approach to show how twins embody ambiguity. The subtitle, “Double Trouble, Twice Blessed,” foregrounds this premise. In several African cultures, twins are viewed through the prism of complementary duality, which is fundamental to African belief systems and worldviews. The various essays in the volume capture this double meaning. Twins are viewed in both positive and negative lights; as a source of antagonisms but also harmony, they repulse because of their assumed powers and are embraced for such powers. Another important aspect of the book is its consideration of socio-religious practices associated with twins in both African and African diasporic cultures.

Editor Philip M. Peek’s introduction expansively maps the contours of existing scholarship. He identifies the absence of a double-entendre approach in previous studies, which, as he argues, is an absence that runs contrary to African systems of thought that consider reality through a bifurcated lens. His weighty description of twins as “vital symbols” of cultural values and human predicament is particularly instructive. Though much of the previous scholarship on twins draws upon Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s structural functionalism, Victor Turner’s symbolic anthropology, and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s functional anthropology, the analyses have been one-dimensional in their emphasis on the negative aspects of twins, according to Peek. Using an ethnographic lens and adopting Turner’s social-structural approach in most of the fifteen essays that comprise the book, the contributors consider the indeterminate cultural position twins occupy. To an extent, they address not so much the problems surrounding twins as identified in previous scholarship but present twins as solutions to such problems. This focus on ambiguity, arguably, offers a new way of understanding the subject of twinship and associative cultural practices in Africa and the African diaspora.

The book is organized into four sections. Part 1, titled “Roots,” comprises two essays that explore the cultural idea of ambivalence in African traditional belief systems and in social and material existence. Pascal James Imperato and Gavin H. Imperato’s jointly written essay, “Twins and Double Beings among the Bamana and Maninka of Mali,” considers “twin-ness” among these groups beyond the stricture of twin births. In traditional Bamana and Maninka societies, birth twins are valorized and associated with the androgynous deity Faro. They are thought to have supernatural powers; they foretell the future and help to resolve disputes. The other essay in part 1, Steven Van Wolputte’s “Twins and Intertwinement: Reflections on Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Northwestern Namibia,” analyzes traditional practices, folklores, and myths among the Himba of northwestern Namibia. Wolpute’s framing of doubleness as a moral economy shows twins as both blessing and curse, good and bad, and embodying incongruities and tensions.

Part 2, “Doubles and Dualities,” includes essays by Babatunde Lawal, Ysamur Flores-Pena, Susan Cooksey, and C. Angelo Micheli. Lawal’s essay, “Sustaining the Oneness in Their Twoness: Poetics of Twin Figures (Ère Ìbeji) among the Yoruba” presents this cosmology of two halves—material and spiritual, inner and outer, male and female, double selves—as a basis for understanding the cultural significance of twins among the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin Republic. Flores-Pena examines practices surrounding twins in the context of the Santería Lucumí religious culture of Cuba, exploring their valorization as the quintessential physical ramification of the natural order of dual equality through various ritual practices, performances, oral narratives, and visual representation. As Cooksey suggests in her chapter that focuses on the Win of southwestern Burkina, what sets twins apart from single births is the enormous power they wield, and which is adjudicated based on how they are treated by their families. If treated well, their parents enjoy immense prosperity and good health. If maltreated, they cause misfortune, such as infertility, bad harvests, disease, and death, to befall their families. Using a detailed analysis of a collection of three hundred photographic images that date from 1960 to the present, from four West African countries, Micheli explores the mechanical duplication of twins’ imagery as grounded in traditions of West African sculpture and European double portraiture.

Comprising five chapters, part 3 is titled “The Centrality of Liminality.” Walter E. A. Van Beek’s essay, which begins the section, explores the intermediate subjectivity of twins among the Kapsiki/Higi of northeastern Nigeria and North Cameroon through a rigorous analysis of the complex symbolisms and rituals surrounding twin births and their first public presentation to the community by their parents. Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers’s chapter on twinship beliefs and practices in the Ubangi region of central Africa explains how some of the cultural understandings of twinship are metaphors used in unraveling the phenomenon. These metaphors include the symbolic relationships between twins and snakes, between twins and water, and between twins and rainbows. Examining twinship practice among the Temne in Port Loko District of Sierra Leone, Frederick John Lamp addresses twins’ indeterminate or rather fraught sexual relationship and cultural interpretations of their intimacy. In his essay on the Tabwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Allen F. Roberts explores ritual performance and songs that emphasize cultural tensions. He also highlights structural ambiguity and a resultant ambivalence of twinship. Mary Nooter Roberts’s essay on the Luba, the concluding chapter in this section, compares the complex opacities that characterize twins and the anomaly and structural balance at the heart of Luba kingship.

The final section of the book is titled “Transformations.” The first two chapters by Marilyn Houlberg and Stefania Capone focus attention on the carryover and transformation of twins’ beliefs and ritual practices from Africa to/in the African diaspora context, respectively Haiti and Brazil. As Houlberg’s and Capone’s essays suggest, twins in the African diaspora do not have negative attributes; in fact, they are divine children. Abstruseness manifests in the complex system of sacred children, which encompasses the twins and their immediate sibling in Haitian religion and the twins and erês (child-like entity) in Brazilian Candomblé. Most twins ceremonies occur during Christmas time, explicitly pointing to the syncretism of African traditional beliefs and Catholicism (captured in the worship of saints Cosmas and Damian, patron twins) in Haiti and Brazil. Elisha P. Renne focuses on Yoruba twins. However, she looks beyond the traditional cultural setting to consider popular representations of twins in Nigerian media, literature, Nollywood, music video, photography, and other secularized realms for examples of what she calls the ambiguous ordinariness of Yoruba twins. The final chapter, Paulo Granjo’s “Twins, Albinos, and Vanishing Prisoners: A Mozambican Theory of Political Power,” connects twinship ritual practices in the rural area to the colonial history and anti-colonial struggles in Mozambique.

Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures fills an important gap in scholarship, with its cross-disciplinary approach providing multiple perspectives on the subject. In outlining the book’s core argument of ambiguity and ambivalence as frames of understanding twin births and cultural practices, several of the chapters are critical of classical twinship studies. Yet it can be argued that they do not substantively shift the interpretive lens. A number of the book’s essays could have benefited from a more nuanced reading of certain cultural practices and underlying belief systems surrounding twin birth. For example, some basic metaphors are taken literally and not subjected to critical scrutiny. Consequently, implied meanings in relation to the social spaces in question are missing or taken out of context. Another issue that is important to mention is the constant recourse to arcane interpretations and the invocation of the supernatural in dealing with cultural phenomena in the African world even when there is perhaps a clear scientific rationale for various ritual practices. As Houlberg’s essay points out, the deification of twins has a lot to do with their vulnerability due to their lower birth rate and therefore the need for close spiritual, medical, physical attention, and extra food in order for them to survive. On another note, it is a basic biological fact that if there are twins in a family, it is most likely that eventually some other members of the family will also have twins. Such biological facts would strengthen (rather than detract from) ethnographic analysis and would also be in keeping with changes in the social understanding of twins in Africa today.

Though the volume draws attention to new circuits and economies of twins’ material representation that take into account the force of modernity, readers are once again reminded of the palpable binary approach in traditional African-art scholarship: on the one hand, the disappearing villages and rural communities popularly regarded as sites of authenticity and of ethnographic research, and on the other hand, the urban setting as the space of modernity, requiring an altogether different set of analytical tools. People move between both spaces in most African countries, and thus the two contexts have a particular interplay, which appears to be lost on many scholars of African art. One wonders how members of the subject-cultures would respond to some of the ethnographic assumptions, analyses, and interpretations were they to read these texts. More often than not, scholarship remains in academia without returning to the spaces of ethnographic research. Ultimately, Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed returns attention to the problematic conflation of visual and ritual practices in African art studies and a preponderant reliance on anthropological methodologies.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi
Curator of African Art, Cleveland Museum of Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.