17 Jun 2019 | By Sun International
Sibaya’s Zulu Stick-Fighters
The dramatic landscape of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province - from the jaw-like peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains to the sub-tropical forests of the coastline - forms an epic backdrop to a tumultuous and bloody history.
This is Zulu country. Centuries before Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama laid eyes on the Natal coast, the area was occupied by the Nguni branch of the Bantu people. While the first British settlers to Natal stood no chance against Shaka Zulu and his fearsome impi warriors, the Afrikaner Voortrekkers managed to hold the territory as a Boer Republic for only four years before British annexation in 1843.
Natal was the site of many battles, including the Battle of Blood River in 1838, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and the South African War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902. Today, KwaZulu-Natal is still home to the Zulu monarchy, and the only province in South Africa to include its dominant ethnic group in its name. KwaZulu literally translates to "Place of the Zulus."
With such an epic history, it's no surprise that the original brief sent out to artists at the time of the Sibaya Casino and Entertainment Kingdom's development was to capture the dynamism and power of KwaZulu-Natal's culture.
A Magical Empire
Designed around Zulu heritage, the Sibaya Casino and Entertainment Kingdom epitomises the pride and strength of South Africa's most famous impi warriors in its striking Afro-contemporary architecture. Even the domed shape of the roof structure pays homage to a traditional Zulu hut.
The main entrance though, required a show-stopping sculpture; something to give pause to tourists as they arrived at this "magical empire." South African artist Keith Calder submitted a maquette (a scale model) of his proposed vision for the artwork, in which two stick-fighters are embroiled in a traditional challenge. He won the commission, and today, Calder's Zulu Stick-Fighters stand in pride of place at the entrance of Sibaya, perpetually poised to do battle.
Stick-fighting (also known as donga, or dlala 'nduku, which literally translates to 'playing sticks') is a martial art traditionally practiced by teenage Nguni herdboys in South Africa. This tradition is one which arguably developed in societies, cultures and civilisations that used herding as part of their systems of survival: where there are cows, there are stick-fighters.
The object is for two opposing warriors to fight each other to establish which of them is the strongest or the "Bull" (Inkunzi). Stick-fighting remains a part of Zulu ceremonial culture today, and is practiced at weddings.
The Sibaya Artwork
Keith Calder's background lies in nature conservation, and so his early sculptures were predominantly realistic and figurative stylisations of animals. However, at the time of Sibaya's development, he'd been experimenting with sculpting the human form.
At 7m x 4m, this artwork is his biggest piece in the human form to date. Calder took 3 months to create the sculpture in his Cape Town studio before it was sent to the foundry to be cast in bronze. In total, the piece took 6 months to complete.
While conceptualising the artwork, Calder envisioned the fighters standing on a solid foundation. The artwork called for something big and natural, a fitting base to support and amplify the powerful energy of the piece above it. After a preliminary site visit, Calder was unhappy with a rockery that had been made to accommodate the fighters, and set out to find a suitable foundation.
The granite boulder that stands beneath the fighting figures today was sourced in a quarry in Rustenburg, and personally selected by Calder. It had to be dug out of the ground, travelled to Durban via train, moved onto a truck, and then lowered into its current position with a crane.
This logistical feat proved worth the effort. Walking around the dynamic sculpture, the energy between the two fighters is electric. Though they're frozen in time by the nuanced craft of the sculptor's hand, it's easy to imagine that a stamp of the fighter's foot has the power to crack the surface of the earth, let alone the ancient granite beneath it.
Fun fact: The artist himself says this is one of his favourite artworks, mainly because of the palpable energy between the two fighters. While it's different to the initial maquette submitted at the time of the commission, as it stands today, the sculpture truly captures the spirit of KwaZulu-Natal's proud heritage.
Want more? Visit Keith Calder's website.