Mikaylah Lepua is studying photography as part of the Bachelor Fine Arts (Visual Art) and is exploring her culture through her own unique lens. She describes herself as loud, fun and artistic, and if she could have dinner with anyone it would be Destiny Deacon, “an incredible Aboriginal artist”.
Her journey to the University of Melbourne
Mikaylah completed a Diploma and Certificate IV in Photo Imaging, before deciding to apply for the Victoria College of the Arts (VCA).
“I wanted to broaden my horizons; I was a bit too comfortable. I wanted to try something new and get a new perspective on my work,” she explains.
She was successful in receiving an interview where she presented a folio, focusing on Aboriginal jewellery.
Mikaylah humbly describes her folio as “just a starting point.”
“I had my visual diary and that’s all. I had a few scraps, a few test shots, but nothing set in stone.”
After asking her about her work, how she thought it would make an impact and the process behind it, the panel decided it was a starting point too. It was the starting point of her time at the VCA.
Studying at the VCA
Before her classes began, Mikaylah attended a camp organised by Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development. She describes it as her most memorable University of Melbourne experience. It was there that she made many of her friends, including fellow artists who she looks forward to collaborating with.
Murrup Barak, located on the Parkville campus, has also been a source of ongoing support for Mikaylah.
“Murrup Barak send me emails about scholarships, works they’re doing and study nights. They have been a really big help. They’ve helped me get some scholarships and stay motivated.”
Once she started studying at the Southbank campus, Mikaylah enjoyed the “hands on” aspect of her course, including her own studio space, and the atmosphere at the VCA.
Also located on the Southbank campus, is the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development – a go-to place for chats, guidance and support.
“Having my people there is so incredible. Having that connection is so important, [as is] having someone there to look up to,” she explains.
When classes moved online earlier this year, Mikaylah used her creativity to adapt.
“[Online learning] has been a really good opportunity for me to reset my thinking. It has made me think, how can I shoot this in a different environment [with different resources]? ... I don’t have a studio, how can I recreate this in my home with natural lighting or with my phone? It’s given me a way to think outside of the box.”
Connection to culture
The shift to an online world has impacted more than Mikaylah’s learning; it’s impacted how she connects to her culture.
Growing up, Mikaylah was surrounded by both Chinese and Samoan food, dance and music. More recently, she discovered her culture was richer than she previously thought. Not only was she Chinese and Samoan, but also Aboriginal.
Mikaylah describes this discovery as a surreal experience. “It did feel like something was missing and finding that out was so incredible.”
Since learning about her full heritage, Michaela has been discovering her culture.
“You feel like you have to learn more about your country, about your people, about who you are. That sense of identity is lost and you have to try and find your way to it.”
Mikaylah’s ancestors are from Palawa. The Palawa people are the traditional owners of the land now known as Tasmania. COVID-19 has prevented the possibility of visiting Tasmania and returning to that Country, but Mikaylah has been connecting through other means. She’s been reading, following pages and incorporating culture into her work.
Mikaylah describes connection to Country as, “a spiritual connection you have. You feel so happy. It’s so hard to explain, but staying connected to Country is so important…When you’re doing dance, song, anything, it feels like your ancestors are there with you, supporting you, loving you and wanting you to do the best you can do.”
Photography for Mikaylah has been a great way of exploring and sharing this rich sense of culture and she aspires to continue doing so after graduation. She wants people to not only see her photos but feel them.