South African Modernism 1880-2020

Lead Research Organisation: University of Salford
Department Name: Sch of Arts, Media & Creative Technology


African artists and writers are rarely associated with modernism. It is traditionally thought of as a Euro-American artistic movement spanning roughly the period 1890-1939. When Africa is discussed in relation to modernism, it is always assigned an outsider position. African art and sculpture is therefore either seen as "primitive" inspiration for key modernist figures such as Pablo Picasso, Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf; or otherwise African artists and writers such as Ernest Mancoba, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o are described as "late modernists" or imitators of Euro-American forms. This research project aims to challenge these long-held beliefs about the relationship between Africa and modernism through a specific case study on South Africa.

We aim to overhaul conventional narratives of modernism by providing a comprehensive account of South African literary modernism and its international connections across the period 1880-2020. We will investigate a) how South African personal and textual networks helped shape literary modernism from the nineteenth century to the present day; b) how modernism continues to provide a politically-charged mode of representation for South African writers responding to major historical events and changing political, economic, social and cultural contexts; and c) how South African literature is related, and compares, to other global forms of modernist writing.

Using evidence gathered in the process of answering these questions, the project also seeks to fulfil one further aim, which is to support the development of decolonised curriculums in English Studies. Campaigns since 2015, including #RhodesMustFall and "Why is my curriculum white?" have brought this issue to international public attention. "Decolonising curriculums" is now a top priority for educators at all levels. We will therefore use public-facing events and academic workshops to support the creation of freely-available research and teaching documents, recordings of talks by academics, non-academic publications and other online resources. These materials will aid educators in reframing how modernism is thought about and taught, by revealing the central role played by South African writers in the development of a major literary movement.

The period of study commences with the 1880 completion of the first South African novel, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm, and ends at 2020, the centenary of Schreiner's death. The planned activities for 2020 include public-facing events that celebrate her contribution, as well as the centenary of the completion of Solomon Plaatje's Mhudi (and 90th anniversary of its publication); the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre; and the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Through scholarly and crossover academic/journalistic publications, the project team will also be examining the transnational personal and literary connections of South African writers such as William Plomer, Roy Campbell, Richard Rive, Lewis Nkosi, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Abrahams, Alex la Guma, and others. These events, people and texts established and inspired modernist literary forms in South Africa and beyond, and affected global public perceptions of colonial, apartheid and postcolonial South Africa. They therefore provide vantage points from which to assess the relationships between modernist literature and politics on the world stage.

The PI will lead the organisation of the project events and academic workshops, and produce three single-authored scholarly outputs; the Co-I will produce a new edition of Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm; the PI and Co-I will co-edit an essay collection; and the PI and RA will co-author one article aimed at school and college English teachers, and one aimed at a general readership. The project will therefore open up new perspectives on modernism and South African literature for scholars, educators and the wider public.

Planned Impact

The Co-I's newly edited text of the first South African novel, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (Edinburgh University Press) is the major access point for impact for this project, as beneficiaries of this publication will extend beyond HE researchers and educators. Its audience will include teachers and students working in secondary, FE and HE contexts across English Studies, Creative Writing, Modern History and African Studies, as well as encompassing a broad general readership throughout the UK, USA, South Africa, and other Anglophone and African nations. We anticipate that the new edition will create an impactful cultural experience for these international audiences by changing reader perceptions and enhancing their cultural understanding of South African and modernist literatures, cultures and histories. It will also create financial benefits for a UK publisher.

The project's three international events and two workshops will have the potential to change public attitudes towards South African literature, the modernist canon and the geopolitics of modernist innovation in ways that can directly affect their future representations. Our collaboration with the organisers of the 10th Annual Schreiner Karoo Writers' Festival is key, as the event regularly attracts 600+ attendees and hosts talks by world-famous writers such as Etienne van Heerden, and Booker and Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee. It also includes literary walking tours, readings, performances, and school outreach activities alongside academic papers. This means that we have the potential to disseminate our research findings to large audiences of academics, writers, librarians, museum curators, school pupils, teachers, local communities and international tourists. All of the project events aim to strengthen links between universities, researchers and cultural institutions in the UK, South Africa and beyond by emphasising the role of literary heritage in establishing and maintaining international connections. The public-facing nature of the events means that they also have the potential to enhance public knowledge, skills and understanding, and provide benefits for people with diverse backgrounds and interests.

The 'decolonising the curriculum' movement has newly brought the subjects and frameworks of university education to international public attention. We aim to support this initiative by providing new material for study in the critical edition of The Story of an African Farm, and freely available research and teaching documents that support the production of decolonised curriculums in English Studies. These will be produced in two workshops on 'decolonising modernism' in relation to research and teaching, as well as in school outreach activities conducted as part of the first project event. We will also pitch an article to The Use of English journal, which is the longest-standing journal for English school and college teachers, and produce a crossover academic/public article for The Conversation, which attracts 5.4million unique users monthly. Both articles will link to our digital tools to enable a fully interactive approach with respondents.

The project website aims to be highly accessible and user friendly. It will host digital resources produced as part of the project, and will include recordings of talks, school outreach documents, blog posts, and materials from the two workshops. These resources will primarily be useful for research and teaching purposes, but their presence in the public domain means that they also have the potential to embrace groups beyond tertiary education. The website will be advertised through relevant academic societies, social media, university websites, and research and crossover articles. Space for visitor comments and links to associated social media sites (facebook and twitter) will provide further means for cultivating dialogues with diverse audiences and recording public responses to the research.


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Munslow Ong J (2021) Decolonizing the English Literature GCE A-Level via the South African Ex-Centric in English: Journal of the English Association