Rhea Micallef-Gavin is a fine artist and fashion designer living in London, United Kingdom. At 24, she has already been featured in 10Magazine, Vogue Italia, Forbes, Love Magazine and interviewed with Twitch TV. She has had her work exhibited in London, Malta, and Torquay.
Between London & Malta
Rhea is British and Maltese and divides her time between London and Malta. Both locations enrich and influence her work. In an interview with North by Northwest, we discussed how gender and identity impact her work. And how they are integral within the London and Maltese art communities that Rhea lives and works in. Finally, we discussed how fashion and fine art are more connected than ever in a world of reimagining gender.
Rhea has been drawn to creating art since she was a young girl when she remembers her mother taking her for walks with crayons. They would get “tree bark prints” by rubbing the crayon against paper on top of trees they would pass. “I always had paints and coloring materials. I was always supported down that road,” Rhea shared. “Art has been a very nice way to express myself. I always knew art was an option and my school, San Anton School Malta, was quite groundbreaking in that area.”
From Fashion to Fine Art: How Gender Impacts Both
Into adulthood, Rhea says she has been producing art with the intention of improving her practice and to research particular concepts for the past 2-3 years. Rhea completed her Fashion Design degree from Ravensbourne University in London in 2020, from which she graduated with First Class honors. Her thesis was focused on identity, which was selected from her own self-direction. “I was the only one in my degree who did an exhibition and the only one who chose to represent it through paintings,” Rhea shared.
Her degree program caused her to shift away from creating “pretty pictures,” as she describes. “Or I was creating art just as a fashion piece that’s purpose was to be printed onto clothing. My perspective shift allowed me to begin to think of art as an exploration. I started to use my art to explore gender. Now that I involve research, I’m constantly reevaluating my perspective through the creation process, and through the paints and prints that I select to work with,” Rhea told me.
Rhea defines her style as expressionist. In particular, she refers to her current collection of paintings which titled under the blanket name “I wish smoking was good for you.” “I wanted to focus on these closed off corners of the room, in which we are the flowers. The collection takes my last exploration in gender and sexuality, where I looked at objects that help us identify ourselves, and it returns to that idea but where I ask the objets or things around the room to express our gender for us. That’s why I say my style is expressionist. Expressionism is just about radically distorting. It’s a way of viewing the world through a particular subjective perspective. It’s emotional. I’m asking you to think about yourself while looking at the pieces,” Rhea explained.
Rhea is inspired by her fellow artists and creatives, the concept of identify, gender, androgyny, landscapes and selfhood. Through her art she hopes to express who she is but also to have a platform to influence other artists in her generation and to continue to hold exhibitions all over the world.
The Difference Between Fashion & Clothing
Rhea’s main mediums are oil paint, oil pastel, and lino print. However, despite her move to being more of a fine artist than a fashion designer, the fashion world still very much influences her art. “My larger influences are the great designers, like Simone Rocha, for instance. I guess for me the way I’d approach fashion is the same way I’d approach a piece of paper. It’s the same compositional direction; the same sense of flare, the sense of style. Fashion teaches you so much about juxtaposition. For example, you can be “ugly” in inverted commas, but at the end of the day, fashion is for aesthetic pleasure. It’s pointless to churn out work without a means to it. That’s the key difference between fashion and clothing.”
“Fashion is a reflective social identity where clothing is the manufacturing of garments. A designer challenges what we think and what society thinks in response to a market of what they imagine would be purchasable in the following 6 months. They do trend research. They look into cultural movements. It’s the same as what separates artists, is that you have to be aware of the world you live in. At the end of the day if your work doesn’t say anything, then what’s the point? At least that’s my view of it,” Rhea said.
Gender and Identity
Rhea told me she loves creating art because it’s an outlet to express how she feels about the current societal status. “The first thing I want to acknowledge when I talk about gender is that it has nothing to do with my personal sexual orientation. I’ve always related to the queer community, to the spirits that are grown within those places. But then sexually, I’ve always been straight, well, at least so far,” she laughs. “I have been great friends with members of the queer community, but within myself, I’ve never considered myself part of those blank labels,” Rhea divulged.
Though, she did say on the topic of gender that she considers herself to be in some aspects, a masculine woman. “I think I sit in the middle and try to portray that for the community. When I paint landscapes, and when I show the mediterranean out of the window, as I often do, I always show it as a great day because things can be really confusing inside ourselves, but at least out of the window, it’s a great day so you know there is hope to come,” Rhea said.
I asked Rhea who some of her biggest artist influences are and she mentioned Alessandro Michele, Jacquemus, Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keef, and Egon Schiele. “At the moment, I feel really connected to Georgia O’Keefe. She’s an aspiration. I like that she develops her style for so long. I love the eagerness to try out new things,” Rhea told me.
When I asked if she admired O’Keefe for her continuing to develop and perfect her style, Rhea answered, “I don’t have a perfectionist outlook or a lot of attention to detail. I have a high level of discipline which is how I’m able to get things done. I feel like saying ‘I’m a perfectionist’ is a trending term, as most people are not perfectionists. And it’s so hard to maintain that. I know I dedicate time and have a multitude of lists where I sort things out. Taking notes helps me achieve what I want. I read a lot and think ‘oh that person did this, maybe I’ll try that,” Rhea shared about her artistic process.
As far as whether she considers herself more of a London artist or a Maltese artist, Rhea says she believes she’ll always be split down the middle. “In London the support for emerging artists and opportunities are immense. There are so many things here. It’s a large space, completely filled with different people doing different things. And particularly, with social media the sheer amount of opportunities you can find are abundant. You’re bound to find someone who will support or connect with your work. Compare that to the Maltese art communities, everyone knows everyone and what their work looks like. Those opportunities come to you if you’re good enough. Whereas in London, there are so many different approaches to having ‘success,’” Rhea explained.
She shared that she spent two months of lockdown in Malta and while she was there managed to get an internship in the art community. She quickly became enmeshed in the Maltese art scene, and this allowed her to develop her network. That afforded her the opportunity of being part of an exhibition with the Gabriel Caruana Foundation. In turn, that exhibition led to her being part of another exhibition, Current/s, Desko, coming soon.
What’s Next for Rhea
There are lots of exciting things on the horizon for Rhea. When I asked her what she would like to see happen next, she told me, though she is a ‘big picture person’, she works backwards. “What I would like to do is to have a flat in London and an escape villa in Malta where I can go and paint whenever I want. I want to divide my time equally, but in order to achieve this I know that I need to have my next exhibitions in London, in a great place. My goal is to keep producing work and keep looking around. I try to always just look at the next ‘first step’ in order to work towards that bigger picture,” Rhea said.
If you’re interested in learning more about Rhea’s work or if you’re interested in being featured as our artist of the month, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.