Elza Miles (Botha)

Names: Miles (Botha), Elza

Born: 1938

In summary: Artist, art historian, teacher, curator, critic, consultant and author

Elza Miles (nee Botha) was born in 1938. In 1960 Miles obtained a BA in Fine Arts at the University of Pretoria, followed by a BA Honours in Afrikaans-Nederlands (cum laude) in 1962 and a Masters degree in Fine Arts in 1964. She completed her Doctorate in Lit et Phil on Maggie Laubser in 1983 at the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg). She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in literature from the University of Witwatersrand in 2012.

Miles intermittently taught Art History at the Rand Afrikaans University, and Art, Afrikaans and English at different high schools, among which the Hoërskool Die Kruin, the first Afrikaans art school on the Rand, and St Barnabas College, Bosmont, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng).

When her student Elaine Mohammed, the daughter of Professor Ismail Mohamed, was arrested after designing a poster commemorating the anniversary of the Communist Party (SACP), Miles joined the Detainees Parents Support Committee (DPSAC). 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.

Stanley Bekker en die boikot(1980), a reader for schools dealing with the St Barnabas students’ experiences during the school boycotts, authored by her then husband John Miles, was illustrated by students attending her afternoon classes at St Barnabas. Her three children also contributed illustrations to the book. The reader, published by Taurus, was banned shortly after its publication.

Following this, Miles continued to freelance for Taurus publishers for a number of years. She was in charge of the distribution of most of its publications and often contravened the postal law by mailing banned books (among which Donderdag of Woensdag and Stanley Bekker en die boikot, both written by her husband). She also contributed to Stet, a small magazine with Gerrit Olivier en Tienie du Plessis at the helm – also a Taurus publication.

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 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). Jacob Dhlamini accompanied her to Botswana in 1993 and her son, Karel, in 1994. Very often the route was uncharted and on many occasions the overnight accommodations were hit-or-miss.

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 publication, entitled To fly with the north bird south – Selby Mvusi, 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).

Her publications include:

  • 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 from 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) Current of Africa – the art of Selby Mvusi (1996)
  • Land and Lives (1997)
  • Gladys Mgudlandlu (2002)

Miles uses her maiden name, Botha, when it comes to her own art. She is widely known for her feminist work of the 1960s and 1970s and for her politically inspired art of the 1980s and 1990s. As a printmaker she favours black and white lino and woodcuts, but also works in mixed media on paper and has produced important sculptural work making use of found objects. 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.

Miles Botha is a recipient of the Vita Award, the Recht Malan Prize and the Old Mutual Award. 

References