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  • Writer's pictureJade Munslow Ong

South African Modernism

Background to the research

When I first started my PhD research on the work of pioneering South African writer, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), I was primarily interested in exploring the relationships between her experimental literary forms and her radical politics. By the time I'd reworked the thesis as a book, I considered these relationships in terms of modernist expression, in which Schreiner uses modernist allegorical forms to promote anti-colonial arguments.

This new project extends my earlier work in two directions. First, it aims to explore the relationship between Anglophone South African literature and modernism from its inception to the present day. Second, it moves beyond national parameters to consider the significance of South African literature in relation to other global modernisms.

What is South African modernism?

The starting point for both strands of research is the question: What is South African modernism? This is not easy to answer, as modernism is traditionally thought of as a Euro-American artistic movement spanning roughly the period 1890-1939. It is associated with specific conditions of modernity, including (amongst other factors) the emergence of global capitalism, empire, women's rights, secularisation, war, the development of new sciences and evolutionary theories, new technologies and transports, mass culture and popular forms. Though these circumstances and issues are typically considered in Euro-American contexts, colonial writers and artists were also implicated in, and engaging with, these concerns.

The global turn in modernist studies that has taken place since 2000 has challenged some of the long-held assumptions about the periods and places of modernism (Sweeney 2004; Doyle and Winkiel 2005; Seshagiri 2010; Platt 2011; Wollaeger and Eatough 2012; Stanford Friedman 2015). However these discussions have also been hampered by two key conceptual problems. Either the temporal and geographical parameters that make modernism intelligible as an artistic response to capitalist modernity are jettisoned in order to incorporate international texts and artists; or otherwise investigations in to the global cultural influences on the work of canonical modernists tend to reinforce the racist primitivising and Orientalising tendencies of Western literature.

The typical interpretation of the relationship between Africa and modernism exemplifies both of these problems, casting Africa in either a primitive or belated role. Either African artforms are reduced to passive primitivist imagery that has to be reworked by European artists and writers in order to be truly modernist; or otherwise African artists and writers such as Ernest Mancoba, Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are described as "late modernists" or imitators of Euro-American forms.

This research project challenges long-held beliefs about the relationship between Africa and modernism through a specific case study on South African modernism. Through a range of planned publications, the team will newly explore the forms and functions of South African literary modernism, and the textual and personal connections between South African and other modernists, whilst retaining a central interest in the relationships between the aesthetics and politics of South African modernism.

Image: Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (1957), oil on canvas, 45.8 x 26.9 cm; public collection: Tate Modern (London, UK); image source:

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