Islamic Art: Reflections on Wellbeing, Equity and Representation, Dr May Jay

Dr May Jay is a GP, who has worked for the NHS and still loves her job, for nearly 20 years. As a Pakistani – English dual citizen, she grew up in the 1980’s in Birmingham, and visited her motherland every year. Brought up by a strong Muslim woman, her faith was further consolidated when she saw The Kaabah for the first time, on Umrah pilgrimage. All these experiences influenced her drive to become a political activist against sexism, racism, war and for free healthcare and socialism.


We talk to Dr May Jay about the benefits of art for wellbeing and why arts, heritage and culture, should be accessible to all.




How can the arts benefit and affect our health and wellbeing?


Research demonstrates the benefits of the arts in all healthcare settings, like community centres and hospitals. It reduces stress, increases social engagement and provides opportunities for self expression. As a child, I fondly remember visiting the local library to get books to inspire my creative imagination for drawing, painting and writing short stories.


Is there a positive connection between art and mental health?


Of course there is! Art involves feelings and can impact all aspects of our health. It’s meditative. It doesn’t matter if it’s high end art or something “homemade” it can be a source of joy. Sometimes we can connect with art in a way where we recognize things that make us happy or remind us of life experiences that we have had. This can make us feel connected through art, so that we don’t feel alone when we are low and can help ease feelings of isolation. As well as going solo, the benefits of art can be experienced as part of a community, either through appreciation or creation.



Can creative expression help our physical health?


Through the ages, art has been used in the supportive treatment and rehabilitation of physical health problems and disabilities. Mental wellbeing is not a completely separate entity to our physical health, so it makes sense that creative expression would help both. As an example, if somebody unfortunately has a stroke and no longer felt coordinated in their dominant hand, art therapy can be used to improve this. Similarly, if somebody who had artistic skills, now has a new disability, art therapy can be used to explore new styles of creative expression.


What about observing and viewing art, such as visiting exhibitions or concerts – does that have an impact on how we feel?


Art and culture should be accessible to everyone, and this can be done in different ways, like online or books. But the feeling of enjoying art is amplified when you are immersed in the physical aspects of art that triggers all the senses. The visual excitement of seeing an exhibition, but the human social side of sharing that experience. Enjoying the acoustics of a concert, with others who are inspired by the same artists. There is something to be said about creating an electric atmosphere.


Islamic art is closely linked with science and Muslims have contributed greatly in medicine. How can we celebrate and help raise awareness of this?


Science in Islam has always fascinated me. Did you know the Big Bang Theory of the Universe is described in the Quran, way before modern science did, and foetal medicine (the development of a baby in the uterus) is also described in the Quran, way before modern medicine understood it. Another thing I love learning about, and visiting in the world, is Islamic architecture that has been influenced by both Islamic art and science. For example, The Green Dome in Medina is iconic in Islam and it’s structure is embedded in both science and art.


Celebrating and raising awareness can be done through sharing in beautiful posts on social media, including it in literature and medical education, decolonizing education curricula and challenging negative perceptions of Islam with the beautiful realities. For example, many believe Islam to be sexist, holding women back in education, not knowing that the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fihri.


You believe in equality for everyone, how can the arts help build equity?


Art can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of their status or background. Equity can be built through the use of privilege for good. This is where opening access to art and culture for all is important. Not just leaving it for those who can afford high ticket prices. We know that in the UK, deprivation is linked to black and ethnic minority groups, who are therefore less likely to be able to access places that charge entry for art spaces and are perhaps elitist.



You are a campaigner for social justice, how can the arts be used as a tool for social change?


Art can be used to spread messages in fighting for social justice. Socialism and activism aren’t just about repeating a story with a megaphone at a protest. Creative ways need to be used to gather interest and to move the message on across generations and across the world. I often use the art of telling a story, as a powerful way of spreading social awareness of current issues. For example, the story of the journey of a refugee, or the story of a working class child growing up in hardship, can unite us in our human similarities and enable others to understand our differences. Sharing a story can evoke emotional responses, which can help engage people in fighting for a good cause.


Which artists inspire you?


As a child, I was really inspired by the rainbow abstract paintings of Kandinsky. To me, if music wasn’t a sound but a painting, his work is how I would see it. I am in awe of the delicate works of fashion designers like Christian Dior and the elaborate prints of Christian Lacroix and Mary Katrantzou. The colours and details used in their work, have inspired the colour and detail I wear in day to day life. My patients love the fact that their doctor is colourful! Some of my favourite visual books, include anatomy books, where the anatomical drawings of such precision and the human body inspired my early journey into learning about medicine.


What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?


I would like it to transcend beyond the stereotypical image of Muslims being only South Asian or Arab. For it to showcase all the cultures that Islam has touched in the world. I would want it to be accessible to all regardless of their ethnicity, colour, gender or social status, and to challenge the spears of capitalism. Most importantly, I want to see Islamic art celebrating the talents of the strong, creative women who have shaped the history of Islam. And moving forward, it needs to be sustainable and planet friendly.


For more information check out @DoctorMayJay on Twitter


The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.