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

Description AHRC NorthWest Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership Target Funding
Amount £4,973 (GBP)
Organisation North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 
Sector Multiple
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2021 
End 08/2022
Description Reignite Your Research Grant, University of Salford
Amount £4,995 (GBP)
Organisation University of Salford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2022 
End 07/2022
Description Research Impact Fund, University of Salford
Amount £2,230 (GBP)
Organisation University of Salford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2021 
End 08/2021
Description '"Too uncompromising a figure to be so disposed of": Virginia Woolf and/on Olive Schreiner', Bangor University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Jade was invited to give the paper '"Too uncompromising a figure to be so disposed of": Virginia Woolf and/on Olive Schreiner' as part of the English Seminar Series at Bangor University (Mar 2021).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description 'Olive Schreiner's anti-colonial allegories' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Jade was invited to speak on 'Olive Schreiner's Anti-colonial Allegories' at Kellogg College at the University of Oxford in March 2021 as part of an undergraduate conference titled 'Victorian Literature: Colonial and Postcolonial Perspectives and Debates'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006,2021
Description BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking programme: Modernism around the World 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Jade Munslow Ong was interviewed as part of a panel of experts for a 45 minute BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking programme on 'Modernism Around the World'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We produced monthly blog posts on our project website. There have been 902 views across the 13 blog posts to date.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
Description English Teacher training day 'Decolonising the Curriculum' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 65 secondary and FE English teachers from the Manchester Catholic Education Partnership (MANCEP) attended a 1 hr keynote lecture by Jade on 'decolonising the curriculum'. This was the main activity of their teacher training day for 2022-23.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Schools Workshops: South African Modernism as Decolonising Methodology for A-Level English 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Funding from the University of Salford (£2230) and AHRC NWCDTP (£4973) was used to hire three Hourly-Paid Lecturers to support the development and delivery of a series of lectures and workshops aimed at students pursuing A-Level English Literature qualifications, with the following aims:

- To extend the reach and impacts of AHRC-funded research (South African Modernism 1880-2020)
- To assist student learning and preparation for A-Level English Literature assessments
- To support and enhance decolonising efforts in English Studies.
- To pilot activities that will inform future bids.

Teaching content includes (but is not limited to): 12x 30-60 min lectures (4 recorded for future use); 8 distinct workshops designed and delivered multiple times; 3x teacher-led workshops designed and shared with teachers. Lecture topics include 'English Literature in Transition 1880-1910', 'Modernism and Empire 1880-1910', 'Introduction to Marxist and Postcolonial Approaches to South African Literature' and 'Gender, Empire and the Modern in Early South African Literature' (amongst others). Workshops focused on close readings of extracts from South African modernist literature in relation to key contexts and concepts.


- Teaching sessions delivered to 530+ students across 12 colleges.
- Article by Jade Munslow Ong, 'Decolonising the English Literature GCE A-Level via the South African Ex-Centric' accepted for publication in English (forthcoming Winter 2021):
- Two FE providers (Loreto and Cheltenham Ladies College) would like to incorporate South African literature in their A-Level syllabi.
- Three related blog posts published on project website
- 200+ comments from students and teachers collated through postcards and surveys.

Example student feedback: 'After participating in such an insightful lecture, I realized how narrow my literary scope is - I am yet to be exposed to literature outside of my culture and those from esteemed British and American writers. The local curriculum needs to change, and I hope that someday I can expand the literary scope in the education sector'.

Example teacher feedback: 'The delivered content highlighted (for both me and the students) the current limitations we generally encounter with the exam board, who seem to take preference for white, British male writers. It has prompted me to look for ways to expand the reading list we deliver. [The sessions] successfully consolidated students' existing approach to unseen extracts (i.e. unpacking key ideas to do with setting, characters, language, tone, themes etc) whilst encouraging them to give (more than usual) weight to contextual ideas and interpretations, especially colonialism and the Empire. I think students found this refreshing as they were given more freedom to connect the dots between social history and literary interpretation'.

More feedback can be viewed at:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022