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Biography: Elza Miles

- By Wits University

Elza Miles, born Elza Botha in 1938, obtained a BA degree in Fine Arts in 1960, a BA Honours degree in Afrikaans-Nederlands (cum laude) in 1962 and a Masters degree in Fine Arts in 1964 from the University of Pretoria. 

She completed her D Lit et Phil in 1983 on Maggie Laubser (1886-73) at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), today known as the University of Johannesburg. 

Miles intermittently taught Art History at RAU, and Art, Afrikaans and English at different high schools such as Hoërskool Die Kruin, the first Afrikaans art school on the Rand, and St Barnabus College in Bosmont. 

The reader for schools, Stanley Bekker en die boikot (1980), written by John Miles, her ex-husband, about the St Barnabus learners’ experiences during the school boycotts, was illustrated by the pupils attending her afternoon classes at St Barnabas. Miles’ three children also contributed illustrations to this reader which was possession banned shortly after its publication by Taurus publishers. 

For several years, Miles worked on a freelance basis for Taurus publishers. She was in charge of the distribution of the majority of its publications and often contravened the postal law by mailing banned books such as Donderdag of Woensdag and Stanley Bekker en die boikot (both by John Miles). She also contributed to the ‘little’ magazine Stet, with Gerrit Olivier en Tienie du Plessis at the helm. Stet was a Taurus publication. 

At St Barnabus College, she taught Elaine and Andrew Mohammed. When Elaine was detained after designing a poster, commemorating the Communist Party, Miles became a member of the support committee of the parents of detainees. She picketed on Saturday mornings and prepared meals for the vegetarian detainees held at the Fort. Her youngest child, Karel, often accompanied her when she delivered the meals. 

Inspired by her artist aunt, Martie Eloff’s scrap books on Afrikaans actors and theatrical groups, Miles did her first scrap book in 1947. To this day, she pursues this activity which may very well account for her subsequent research into the lives of African artists in South Africa. 

When the late Sipho Sepamla invited her in 1986 to join his staff at the Fuba Academy, she revised the syllabus which, at the time, focused on Western norms and Art History. 

Ever since then, research into African artists became a passion. Her quest for information about the South African born artist Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) of whom art historians in South Africa were unaware at the time, led to extensive travels in France, Britain and Denmark (1990). 

A four month senior research grant by the Human Sciences Research Council enabled this research. In 1994 French and Danish aid assisted her to tie the knots for the ensuing Hand in hand exhibition which showcased the art of Ernest Mancoba and his wife, the Danish sculptress Sonja Ferlov (1911-1984) at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. 

During 1992 she spent hours in the State Archives in Pretoria working through boxes brimful with information. She did extensive fieldwork in Southern Africa: in Botswana, Limpopo (1994), KwaZulu-Natal (1994) and Eastern Cape (2002). Jacob Dhlamini accompanied her to Botswana in 1993 and Karel in 1994. Very often the route was unchartered and on many occasions the overnight accommodation were either a hit or miss affair. 

This groundbreaking research initiated several publications: 

  • Artists’ Birthday Calendar for Fuba Academy with an accompanying exhibition at the South African Association of Arts, Pretoria (1993)
  • Lifeline out of Africa – the art of Ernest Mancoba (1994) which won the Recht Malan Prize (1994), the Old Mutual Literary Award and was honourably mentioned by the Noma awards for publications from Africa in 1995
  • Ernest Mancoba – a resource book (1994)
  • Land and Lives – the story of early African artists (1997)
  • The World of Jean Welz (1997)
  • Nomfanekiso who paints at night – the art of Gladys Mgudlandlu (2002)
  • Polly Street – the story of an Art Centre (2004). 

In addition to writing and publishing, she has been responsible for several major exhibitions. Her first experience of curating a group exhibition occurred in 1986 at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. She invited several creative individuals of different walks of life to interpret the morning when ‘Apartheid was no more’ in the After Apartheid exhibition. 

For the Johannesburg Art Gallery she curated: 

  • Hand in hand (1994-95) for which she was awarded a special FNB Vita Arts Award for curatorship (1994)
  • Current of Africa – the art of Selby Mvusi (1996)
  • Land and Lives (1997)
  • Gladys Mgudlandlu (2002) 

From 1998 to 2000 she researched the visual arts of African artists in South Africa for the Bowmint Collection. This led to her acquaintance in London with Albert Adams (1930-2006), Valerie Desmore (1925-2008) and Louis Maqhubela (born 1939). 

In 2006 she was the recipient of a fellowship from the Department of Arts and Culture and the Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust enabling her to continue research into the life and work of Selby Mvusi (1929-67). This task completed, the text is entitled To fly with the north bird south – Selby Mvusi and is to be co-published by the Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust and the University of South Africa Press. 

She freelanced as an art critic for the Afrikaans newspapers Rapport (1972-1976) and Beeld (1983-1990). 

Miles uses her maiden when it comes to her own art. Some of her wood, lino cuts and drawings are held by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Iziko National Art Gallery in Cape Town; several South African and American university art collections as well as corporate collections in South Africa.