25 Apr 2024 ///

The Insatiable Curiosity of Mikhailia Petersen’s Multidisciplinarian Image-Making

To be a multi-disciplinarian is to be insatiably curious – it means, at its root, that one’s creative process is always up for re-assertion and is never finalised or concluded. I know of Mikhailia Petersen’s work through her viewpoint of styling and creative direction in fashion; with a signature ability to fuse contemporary sensibilities, while resurrecting a sense of nostalgia – the latter, being a facet of Mikhailia’s photographic work, in both mood and meaning. Whether it’s her work for publications such as The Face, Vogue Italia or NATAAL, or showcases such as The Manor curated by Trevor Stuurman, or participating with galleries such as The Reservoir and with Church at FNB Joburg Art Fair – Mikhailia’s ability to create visual stories is one far-reaching and profound. As Mikhailia tells me in our conversation, shooting was always her primary goal and it took engaging with multiple parts of the image-making process in order to get there.

As Mikhailia explains, “I’ve always wanted to shoot. I didn’t have the money for gear initially, so one way that I could be part of the image-making process was to style. That was a little bit more accessible – I had contacts in the fashion industry, and so that was my start in the space. It naturally progressed to creative directing and producing, and then I had the opportunity to borrow my friend’s camera. I started practising photography, officially.” Mikhailia’s engagement with photography arose out of a deep search in making meaning of a landscape in which the narratives of those around her – whether communities or individuals – shone more clearly as the materia for the kind of narrative-building that she was pulled towards. As Mikhailia notes – fashion was the first point of entry in this process, but it has become so much more; “fashion is an extremely important tool. Though I found that it was limiting, as a stylist, to say exactly what I wanted to say or share the stories that I wanted to – and I got to the point where I had set up the whole scene for an image, I should just shoot it, too? I realised I can do it myself, and for the work to be made by a person of colour is really important, too.” With a particular emphasis on shooting stories of POC and LGBTQIA+ people, Mikhailia’s instinct for storytelling is grounded from behind the camera lens. Though, this does not mean a conclusion of her artistic focus – it means, as she tells me, that next stop is to become a director and work with moving images and film. Mikhailia embodies that precious and insatiable curiosity.




I ask Mikhailia whether there is a definition to what she is currently making, and how the intersection of her multiple disciplines might unfold during the creative process? To which she says, “my focus is fine-art photography right now, while working towards becoming a director. With all these intersecting roles, I’m constantly jumping between them in whichever process I’m engaged in. I still see myself as a practising artist, just with more expanded skill-sets to step into, depending on the body of work or brief at hand. I think when I’m building a story, it’s become instinctive for me to know which areas of the process need my attention or focus – from photographing, to styling, creative directing and so on.”

Though Mikhailia remains engaged in the realm of fashion, it is her fine-art photography that is bringing her the deepest sense of nourishment. I am struck by her portrayal of the Hanover Minstrels, the procession leaders of Tweede Nuwe Jaar and the annual Cape Minstrel Carnival. Capturing that inarticulable joy, energy and co-creation of this historical and cultural celebration, Mikhailia’s series statement explains thatTweede Nuwe Jaar is  “rooted in the city’s history of colonisation and struggle, it marks the one day off a year the city’s slaves were traditionally allowed, which they used to come together through music, costumes and dance. After emancipation in 1838, local communities formed bands, choirs and troupes and by the early 1900s new year processions became commonplace. Tweede Nuwe Jaar went on to survive Apartheid and has embedded itself into South African popular culture, becoming a celebration of togetherness.”


Mikhailia shares that “I’m deeply inspired by the Hanover Minstrels. They’re the first minstrels from District Six, and they’ve led the whole procession throughout all these years. I really admire everything that they stand for in terms of community upliftment and their focus on encouraging kids to find their expression,” and that this project is one that will continue to form part of a long and open-ended body of work, “I actually didn’t know much about my own culture. Working with the Hanover Minstrels has been this incredibly enlightening way to engage with my culture – to see other coloured people engage in this precious and unique creative outlet. I’m hoping to shoot them for eight more years, so I can do a ten-year anniversary story series. Being able to build long-form, documentarian-style work with communities is something very special and dear to me.”

As a creative, Mikhailia’s notes that the act of collaboration is as simple as it is powerful, saying that “I believe in integrity as the foundation for any collaboration. With integrity, an intuitive process always seems to unfold between collaborators – and this has always led to the most beautiful work.” and that this moment, of Mikhailia’s creative expression, is perhaps her most attuned, “I have never felt so comfortable and so confused, in my entire life! I am so comfortable with myself at the moment and what I’m trying to say, and hopefully what I am going to leave behind one day as a legacy, and what my impact is creatively. It’s this really interesting tension of knowing that what I’m doing is precisely what I need to be doing, but not having the full knowledge of where it’s going. I think that’s the confusing part, but I’m trusting the process.”


Mikhailia, photographed by Alice Mann

As for the future? Mikhailia’s sights are set on film-making – an organic consequence of mastery in the art of still imagery. Now, Mikhailiia is pursuing the art of movement; “My vision is to make more community work. I’m also going to make my own films – which is a really exciting, new frontier for me.” With a final anecdote for those called to a practice rooted in a multitude of disciplines and articulations, Mikhailia’s encouragement is that “when you feel like you want to quit – that’s when you have to keep going. To be able to tap into creativity is so special, but your story matters.”



Written by: Holly Beaton

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

You May Also Like

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

When reality seems to present a flat surface of 2-dimensional, replicated ideas: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed is a stylist and art director whose maximalist spirited work stands in direct resistance to any and all oblique tediousness.