RAD Culture Zone

Our culture, our passion, our inspiration

Breyten Breytenbach Boekefees- Elza Miles

BBB 2013 Elza MilesElza Miles is die skrywer van The artists’ birthday calander; Lifeline out of Africa, Ernest Mancoba: a resource book, Land and lives, Die wêreld van Jean Welz, Current of Africa, Nomfanekiso who paints at night, Polly Street.
To fly with the north bird south – Selby Mvusi word in samewerking met die Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust deur UNISA Press uitgegee.
Miles het vir die Johanneburgse Kunsmuseum enkele oorsigtentoonstellings versorg: Hand in hand, wat die kuns van Ernest Mancoba en Sonja Ferlov aan Suid-Afrikaners bekend gestel het, ‘n omvattende groepstentoonstelling van swart SA kunstenaars gebore voor 1930, en respetiewelik die kuns van Selby Mvusi en Gladys Mgudlandlu.

Sy is ‘n drukkemaker en haar werk is in openbare en koöperatiewe versamelings in Suid-Afrika opgeneem asook in Amerika by die Kauffmann Museum, Bethal College, Kansas en die Universiteit van Wisconsin.

Abridged biography

Elza Miles (born Botha, 1938) obtained the following degrees at the University of Pretoria:
BA Fine Arts (1960), BA Hons Afrikaans-Nederlands (cum laude 1962) & MA Fine Arts (1964).
She completed her D Lit et Phil (1983) on Maggie Laubser (1886-73) at the Rand Afrikaans University (University of Johannesburg).

In 2012 she received an Honorary Doctorate in literature from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Miles intermittently taught Art History at the Rand Afrikaans University, 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, 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 shortly after its publication by Taurus, possession banned.

For several years, Elza Miles free-lanced 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 Colledge, she taught Elaine and Andrew Mohammed. When Elaine was detained after she had designed a poster, commemorating an anniversary of 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 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 SA 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 (HSRC) enabled this research. In 1994 French and Danish aid assisted her to tie the knots for the ensuing Hand in hand exhibition which show-cased the art of Ernest Mancoba and his wife, the Danish sculptress Sonja Ferlov (1911-84) at Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

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

This ground-breaking 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) which 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 1998-2000 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 free-lanced as an art critic for the Afrikaans newspapers Rapport (1972-6) and Beeld (1983-90).
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, Iziko National Art Gallery, Cape Town; several South African and American university art collections as well as corporate collections in South Africa.

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