*The Percival Lecture* – South Africa’s Modernism, Modernism’s South Africa

Professor Jade Munslow Ong

This is a recording of a past event
18 April 2024


When and where does modernism begin?

Is it in Paris in Spring 1907, when Pablo Picasso, inspired by the African masks he has seen on display in the Palais du Trocadéro, returns to his studio to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?

Or, is it in the semi-desert region of South Africa in the 1870s, when teenage governess, Olive Schreiner, writes her first novel: The Story of an African Farm?

In the first origin story, Europe is the site of modernist innovation. Here, African art is viewed as little more than a repository of “primitive” imagery, in need of reinvention by the European artist in order to become truly “modern”.

In the second origin story, a South African writer produces a highly experimental, already-modernist novel that establishes forms and ideas that would later appear in, even influence, the development of English modernist literature.

One of these origin stories is more widely known that the other because modernism is primarily associated with early-twentieth century European and American artists and writers. Familiar figures from literature include James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. And writers associated with the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.

Yet Schreiner wasn’t alone amongst her countryfolk in using innovative literary techniques to engage with conditions of modernity. Others came in her wake. These pioneers included Solomon Plaatje, the first black South African to write a novel in English. Others were H.I.E. Dhlomo, a pioneering poet, playwright, essayist and journalist; poet Roy Campbell, who became embroiled in friendships and feuds with members of the Bloomsbury Group; and novelist William Plomer, one of the most prolific writers for the Hogarth Press, run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

In this recording of Jade Munslow Ong’s talk – the 2024 Percival Lecture – she discusses a range of South African origin stories, taking in both South Africa’s modernism and modernism’s South Africa. She offers an account of the modernist aesthetics and politics established and promoted by South African writers. And she explores the debt owed by English modernists to the South African innovators that preceded, coincided with, collaborated on, and influenced their work.

professor jade munslow ong

Professor Jade Munslow Ong

Jade Munslow Ong is Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Salford. She is author of Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, 2018), co-editor (with Andrew van der Vlies) of Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts (Edinburgh University Press, 2024). Her latest book – Global Literatures and the Environment: Twenty-First Century Perspectives – is co-authored with Matthew Whittle and will be published in 2024.

Jade is currently Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded research project, South African Modernism 1880-2020 and is an BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker who regularly appears on BBC Radio 3. She has published and presented widely.

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