Disrupting Politeness: In Conversation with Roxana Halls
© The Orchestra-Shoes - Illustration by Roxana Halls
Roxana Halls is a London based artist known for her feminist work.
A quick look at Roxana’s work and you will see a pattern emerge: women. At the focal point of most of her pieces, Roxana conveys her feminist messages and promotes that women should free themselves of society’s expectations. Her work is reflective of her own life and is both beautiful and deeply fascinating.
What originally inspired you to create the type of art that you do?
I didn't exactly decide to become an artist, it's a kind of vocation to me. I hadn't really made a great deal of work as a kid, initially, I wanted to act, but one night aged 16 I thought I'd try some oil painting and although the painting I made, a self-portrait, is pretty abysmal I somehow just knew from then on there was nothing else for me. It was more a kind of uncovering of purpose than making a choice.
For some years now I've been making paintings of women laughing while freeing themselves from traps, the ‘Laughing While....’ series. They began with one painting, a self-portrait called 'Laughing With My Mouth Full' – in this painting I wanted to convey with the visual economy a simultaneous constraint but also excess, all centred around the mouth, that site of restriction, censure and hazardous communication.
This led me to investigate the implications of laughter and to question the relative lack of it in figurative art.
What is the first step in your creative process when creating a new piece?
The process begins with a spark. An image flashing before my eyes seemingly out of nowhere. Mostly they come as unbidden surprises and not always entirely welcome: often they ask that I paint something which I don't yet entirely know how to make. When I come to actually create them while the act of painting is a relatively straightforward solitary activity they often involve a lengthy behind the scenes process.
I start from the guiding principle that I will do whatever is necessary to make the image in my mind exist. I make no preparatory sketches at all and paint direct to the canvas but the images from which I paint are carefully constructed tableaux that resemble film stills or frozen theatrical moments.
Women are the main subject of the majority of your art, is portraying women in your work something that is particularly important to you?
I’m always thinking about where and how women take up space and disrupt politeness, how they circumvent the impulse to self-control and be contained. There are specific forces of control which women absorb and are subjected to, in the thrall of and against which their natures often compete.
I would describe my work as wayward and feminist to the core, it is concerned centrally with refusal and the tyranny of the control versus chaos dichotomy. I've often spoken of my protagonists as women laughing while freeing themselves from traps both imposed and of their own making, by whatever means necessary.
I examine how class, sexuality and gender intersect and inform the apparent repertoire of roles available to women.
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, and no wonder then that I paint mostly women 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.
© Laughing While Marauding - Illustration by Roxana Halls
In collections such as Crime Spree and Laughing While the women featured are all laughing or smiling. What was your reasoning behind this?
Laughter is disruptive; it erupts unbidden and is often described as 'inappropriate'. But it is life-force and cannot be policed or suppressed. When we laugh, we bear our teeth, and in doing so, we offer the only available glimpse of our skeleton beneath. It has always felt like the closest thing to what might be described as truth.
We spend our lives trying to present our 'best face' to the world. When we laugh, what happens to our visage is beyond our control, and overcoming self-consciousness and embarrassment can prove immensely liberating for ourselves and others.
The word embarrass derives from the French embarrasser: to block, hamper or impede - just what we must abandon at the dock if we embark on a voyage of self-discovery and liberation.
Your pieces often use bold colours; is this a particular technique to convey your feminist messages?
The significance of colour is of particular interest to me; the colour enhances the reading of the image. It is part of an ongoing fascination for me with what constitutes freedom and how a notion persists that there are specific rules to painting. Let's say, for example, a subtle, subdued palette being synonymous with what is considered to be high-brow and a vivid, intensely saturated one being what is thought to be merely flim-flam and trashy. If you want to explore what freedom might look like, it requires a degree of interrogation from the ground up.
© Laughing While Smashing - Illustration by Roxana Halls
Do you take inspiration from real women in your life?
Yes, very much so. I never speak of my subjects as mere sitters but rather as collaborators and partners-in-crime.
My life is largely built around the slow, solitary business of making paintings that are so much more an ongoing series of questions than definitive slogans. I am keenly attracted to the company of intelligent women who know their minds, and often those who couldn't care less about others' censorious opinions of them.
One strand of my work, Laughing While Conducting (The Orchestra), has been inspired by the women I know, each of them wielding their weapon of choice, collectively an ongoing series where women laugh while wielding their instruments in an orchestra of revenge.
Is it necessary to you that your art always conveys a particular message?
However earnestly you try to find a form of language with which to attempt to communicate truthfully, it will convey entirely different things to each and every viewer. As a young artist I had very particular aspirations for my work and now I can hardly believe I ever imagined it would be understood in just one specific way, and now this doesn't concern me at all. I'm just fascinated by how varied the reactions are and listen to them closely and with interest.
If you are constantly worried about how your work will be seen and that it needs to be read in one specific way then you honestly can't pick up a paintbrush!
If I had any shred remaining of such concerns my laughing women have consigned them to dust. I sometimes think they don't even care what I think of them.