Laughing While Under Surveillance: the Art of Roxana Halls

Women have a complicated relationship with the act of laughing. Many of us laugh when we’re uncomfortable. We also laugh to ease tension. We laugh at jokes that aren’t funny to save the joker’s feelings. Women put themselves under surveillance because of the societal punishments for stepping out of line. There is rarely a better example of female self-policing than the way we scrutinise our own joy, our laughter. 

We are our own voyeur, as Margaret Atwood wrote in The Robber Bride:

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

The way we police the volume and politeness of our laughter indicates the way our true, most liberated desires are so suppressed. Women must feel mildly. We must be accomodating to our surroundings and the people within it. Our feelings must cause absolutely no disruption to gendered ideas about our collective benignity. 

Women laughing in Roxana Halls’ artworks are delightfully malignant to patriarchal ideas of womanhood. Many of her Laughing While artworks make me nostalgic for the freedom of feeling only experienced in girlhood. I remember laughing in what looked like uncontrollable fits of madness and parents or teachers demanding I stop. I couldn’t. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky but there was “no reason” for the red-face, tear-rolling, mouth-gaping sort of laughter I couldn’t contain. I was resisting control. What’s more scary than an uncontrollable girl?

Laughing While Perching by Roxana Halls, oil on linen.

Seeing women laugh uncontrollably in Roxana’s art inspires me. I feel a deep sense of joy and a huge rush of adrenaline. Why is viewing women laughing so impactful? When I asked Roxana about the significance of women laughing in her Laughing While… artworks, she pointed me to a quote in Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’:

The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognised feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a supression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives…As women we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge…..The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings…..Of course, women so empowered are dangerous.”

Roxana’s subjects indulge in the erotic. My work using laughter explores ways of depicting women’s internalised rules of conduct, posing questions about the ways in which within contemporary culture women are appraised, influenced & policed and how ‘self-surveillance’ circumscribes the repertoire of legitimate actions available to them,” she explains. “Many of the subjects of my paintings offer a riposte to self-consciousness, they often teeter on the verge of indulging in ‘catastrophic’ behaviour, or at times topple over. They may be inappropriate and immune to self-censure. When women are laughing the most seemingly innocuous actions can be subversive, just as acts of transgression may be foregrounded by the prosaic.”

Any woman or girl who feels things in “excess,” who refuses to contain her thoughts or feelings, who dabbles in uncontained desire — managing to express her nature despite militant patriarchal socialisation — is viewed as mad. It’s catastrophic for a woman to rip off the figurative corset. We distrust our erotic power because our energy is suffocated by socially constructed strings. 

Laughing While Looting by Roxana Halls, oil on linen.

The women in Roxana Halls’ art are often committing crimes. In fact, Roxana’s art is being exhibited at Reuben Colley Fine Art in Birmingham, UK, until October 2nd, in a show entitled “CRIME SPREE.” The women challenge their socialization. Femininity, including passivity and submission, is naturalised among women. Women and girls are not naturally feminine. However, any behaviour that challenges the naturalisation of such femininity is viewed as a fault in the individual girl or woman, rather than proof patriarchy’s ideals don’t adequately represent the reality of females.

Women laughing is significant. It’s powerful. It can even be revolutionary. While taking in Roxana Hall’s art and insight, I am reminded of the only Shakespeare quote that’s been stuck in my head since secondary school: “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” We rob from surveillance when we resist self-policing.

The women laughing in Roxana Halls’ art are painted with the physical response to unbridled laughter in mind. “Laughter is disruptive, it erupts unbidden and is often described as ‘inappropriate’,” Roxana asserts, “But is life-force and cannot be policed or suppressed. I’ve always thought of my work as having a palpable eroticism, not only because of the connotations of unbridled laughter, but also in the manner in which they are painted; the act of laughter engages most of the body in its production and consequently my figures have a muscular dimension but in synthesis there is a deliberate sensuousness in the light falling on fabric and hair, and this is frequently suggested in my figures’ surroundings, dark woods, vivid pyrotechnics, neon-lit streets and smoke.”

Laughing While Unwrapping by Roxana Halls, oil on linen.

Even the women laughing while undertaking a range of mundane, domestic tasks are all-feeling, unpredictable, liberated. They’re not monitoring the redness of their face, or the volume of their laugh, or the angle we view them from. They’re laughing at everyday things, like unwrapping presents or eating strawberries.

Like laughing, girls are socialized to eat little, and politely. Women and girls who have a big appetite for anything enjoyable are patrolled. We can’t take up space — even the spiritual space of desire. If women’s desire is downsized then we pose no threat because our energy is depleted. If we can’t eat and/or laugh, then how are we going to fetch the bolt cutters

Laughing While Eating Yoghurt by Roxana Halls, oil on linen.

Women laughing in Roxana Halls’ work is symbolic, but Roxana is aware her art resonates differently with every viewer. In order to visualise who or what we can be, sometimes we need to see it represented first. It’s difficult to dream what’s unseen, unspoken, or unwritten. Everything that we make as visual artists bears the imprint of all that we are, I am a lesbian and a feminist, and this is inevitably embedded and perceptible in my work but is not the only prism through which to engage with or respond to it and I’m frequently struck by how deeply personal these works can be for viewers whose lives do not reflect my own,” Roxana states.

“As queer ‘readers’ we are adept at appropriation and creative subtexts and learn to decipher them and tease them out from the prevailing visual culture. I seek to create provocative scenarios for the viewer to find themselves in, and only my paintings will ever know to whom they have really communicated. Paintings can be like wild animals, who knows what might happen if we let them into our homes? When looking at my images of women engaging in indecorous or even catastrophic behaviour it isn’t too far a leap to consider that if they could do that together, what else might they do?”

Laughing While Eating Strawberries by Roxana Halls, oil on linen.

While I don’t personally categorize Roxana’s art as surreal, the women laughing with such unbridled eroticism feels one degree separated from reality: it is real because it’s possible, but it’s surreal because it’s difficult to imagine under patriarchal policing. I feel a little angry when I view these paintings because I remember the times this kind of laughter was socialized out of me and the women I know. But then I feel inspired, because I remember what we’re capable of.

I asked Roxana about her thoughts behind the surreal/real in her art. She said, I don’t think of my work as surreal, and they aren’t informed by that tradition especially, although I do admire some of the artists connected with that movement. My work is metaphorical, but is firmly grounded in the physical world, not the realm of dreams. My figures are urgently physical, they are emphatically never passive; my women are urgently disruptive and active by necessity.”

I was relieved to hear confirmation that these women do, or can, exist in the physical world. It’s not that I didn’t believe the dream. It’s just reaffirming that someone else does too. I know this type of unbridled eroticism is possible for women, I know it’s inside of us, but it’s often inaccessible. As cosmetic surgery, dieting, influencer culture, and the ‘body as a brand’ has increased, my hope for women got a little exhausting. Roxana Halls’ paintings are uplifting because they depict scenes many of us have only dreamt of. Women can have a little uncontained desire if they want to.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on

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