Joy gallery captions

Joy is connected to heightened emotional states like ecstasy, euphoria and pleasure. These feelings can pass quickly, often leaving us wanting more. Expressions of joy such as laughter can release tension and mitigate the effect of stress on the body.

New artworks by Harold Offeh, David Shrigley and Amalia Pica explore themes of resilience, humour and hope, and consider the power of shared joy to help us overcome difficulty. During the pandemic, and despite physical distancing, communities have found creative ways to experience intimacy and connection. Altruistic behaviour has been found to increase in times of adversity.

These commissions are shown alongside contemporary artworks and historic objects that consider the many different kinds of positive emotion, with their relationship to the body. Situated throughout the gallery are observations from poets, scientists, historians and activists reflecting on the impact of joy within our bodies, and how different generations have sought to reclaim and redefine it.

Weeping & Joy in The Passions, Humorously Delineated

Timothy Bobbin, 1773
Edition: J Hayes for E Orme, London, 1810
Wellcome Collection

The engraving by Timothy Bobbin – the pseudonym of the artist John Collier – is a caricature of Charles Le Brun’s ‘Passions of the Soul’, displayed in the gallery downstairs. Bobbin renders his drawings of expressions more crudely than Le Brun, transferring the action to a pub. One character is weeping, which elicits a broad smile from his companion. Is the artist suggesting that he is taking pleasure from the other person’s pain or that the two experiences are intertwined?

Joy Inside Our Tears

Harold Offeh, 2021

The dance floor promises a moment of euphoric release. Throughout history people have danced to express religious devotion, or to subvert social expectations. Many communities use dance and movement as a way to process difficult experiences and heal.

Harold Offeh has collaborated with the choreographer Vânia Gala on a series of online workshops bringing together artists Veronica Cordova de la Rosa, Samra Mayanja, Ebun A Sodipo and Offeh to explore the restorative qualities of dance. The installation is completed by a soundwork by sound designer Xana and photographs by the artist Eloise Calandre.

Originally proposed before the pandemic, the commission was reconfigured due to physical distancing guidelines. The dancers’ movements are produced in response to a series of instructional scores, such as shaking, passing out and dancing in slow motion. The work considers the complex relationship between societal trauma and public manifestations of dance. These can be redemptive but can also hint at something darker. For the commission, Offeh researched the history of medieval dancing manias. While the causes of the manias are unclear, these eruptions of spontaneous dancing in the street were viewed as either mass hysteria or a form of spiritual possession.

Listen to the full description by the artist in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

“When I think about this idea of happiness and pain and how one can’t exist without the other, I think about Kahlil Gibran’s poem ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ and the opening line: ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’ He goes on to build a comparison between how joy and sorrow, if they don’t exist, if you don’t make space for both of them to exist in your life, it’s not possible to live fully."

Raymond Antrobus, poet


David Shrigley, 2020

Throughout the gallery David Shrigley presents a new series of drawings that respond to everyday moments of joy. While his topics are far-reaching, Shrigley’s deliberately crude black-and-white drawings are deceptive in their simplicity. Using humour to disarm the viewer, his subjects often include dark and complex themes that suggest laughter is a moment of reprieve as well as a coping strategy for difficulty.

Joy in Others

From dancing in the street to sharing a meal, social experiences can bring us together and increase our sense of trust and belonging. The objects in this room reflect on the pleasure of being with others and the contagious qualities of joy.

Do we smile because we’re happy ourselves or do we perform a smile to make others feel better? Emotions are complex constructions of our minds, bodies and environment, long debated by scholars, but one certainty is that part of their nature is social. From the ways we are taught to feel as children, to ancestral memories unknowingly carried in our DNA, there are many ways in which our emotions are shaped by others.

The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that friendship is one of the most important influences on not only our personal wellbeing but how long we live. If the quality of our relationships so significantly affects our health, it is vital that we make time to build and maintain social connections.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Charles Darwin, 1872
Edition: D Appleton and Co., New York, 1873
Wellcome Collection

Babies develop the capacity to smile and laugh before they acquire verbal language. These expressions play a role in deepening connection between people and putting others at ease. Charles Darwin’s influential book was one of the first studies to bring together ideas about emotion and evolution, and to define emotions as biological. In this chapter, ‘Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, Devotion’, Darwin documents different reflexive smiles, comparing them to similar displays of behaviour in animals.


Harold Offeh, 2001
2 mins 58 secs
Courtesy of the artist

The artist Harold Offeh smiles through gritted teeth while listening to Nat King Cole sing the song ‘Smile’. The melody was originally written by Charlie Chaplin in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, to celebrate hope in the face of adversity. Offeh’s performed smile is more like a grimace, complicating the original lyrical intent. By enduring the smile over the length of the song, Offeh creates an unease that suggests that facial expression can hide as much as exhibit true feelings. 

Stockport Spider-Man

Phil Nobel, 2020
Reproduction 2021
© Reuters

Jason Baird and Andrew Baldock – aka the Stockport Spider-Man – achieved global fame through this image, taken during the UK’s first lockdown in spring 2020. With physical distancing guidelines in place, families booked Spider-Man to entertain children outside their homes with spectacular martial art displays. From clapping for the NHS to an unprecedented number of charitable acts, the national lockdowns saw many creative expressions of community connection.

Sagacity: The Periodic Table of Emotions

Aidan Moesby, 2015
Reproduction 2021
Courtesy of the artist

There are many systems that measure wellbeing, yet few have used a wide variety of emotions as their basis. In digital form, Aidan Moesby’s periodic table responds to Twitter users’ mentions of emotions, changing the colour of the designated squares and creating a collective landscape of the mood of a particular location. Moesby wants to broaden emotional literacy by providing a more nuanced language for talking about positive and negative emotion.

A young woman dancing the tarantella

Unknown maker, c. 1850
Wellcome Collection: 34200i

The name of this Italian folk dance comes from the word ‘tarantism’: a condition attributed to the bite of a spider, dating back to the 11th century. Those who had supposedly been bitten, usually women, would feel sickness and fatigue before becoming catatonic. Musicians would play uplifting melodies with increasing tempo until the victim began a frenzied dance. It was thought that this would dispel the venom from the body. Whether the condition was caused by spiders or other traumatic experiences, the ritual provided an important outlet for female suffering.

A Mevlevi, or whirling dervish, performing a ritual mystic dance

Unknown maker, c. 1850
Wellcome Collection: 566398i

The picture depicts a physically active form of Sufi meditation, which started in the 13th century and is still practised today. The dervish – typically a man – participates in a sema, or worship ceremony, bringing together singing, chanting and dancing to attain a higher ecstatic state. The dancing involves a form of rapid rotation while the dancer focuses on God and removes his personal ego to establish greater connection to the group. By revolving from right to left around his own heart, the dervish embraces humanity with love.

Athenians wearing masks celebrate the vintage by dancing around a statue of Bacchus and sacrificing a goat to him

P Lombard, after F Cleyn, 1654
Wellcome Collection: 26088i

This engraving depicts people sacrificing a goat in front of the god of intoxication, freedom and ecstasy – known as Dionysus to the Greeks, Bacchus to the Romans. The festivals of Dionysia took place around the agricultural calendar, occurring in the spring, connecting the celebration to concepts of fertility and renewal. Through wild and joyous dancing, revellers could reach a state of mental and spiritual freedom as a way of paying their respects to this god.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

“Pleasure comes in repeated cycles, with different phases of wanting, liking, and satisfaction or satiety. Different brain networks and neurotransmitters change their involvement in the complex choreography of pleasure. The same brain region can play a very different role in different phases, depending on its involvement with other regions and the facilitation of this communication by dopamine in the wanting phase and opiates in the liking phase.”

Morten L Kringelbach, Professor of Neuroscience, Aarhus University, Denmark, and University of Oxford, UK

Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness

Barry Lewis, 1982
Printed 2021
Courtesy of the artist

The photographer Barry Lewis documented Butlin’s holiday resort in Skegness during an editorial assignment in the 1980s. Taken from his series, this image captures the carefree spirit of relaxing on holiday. The motto “Our true intent is all for your delight” is a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and adorns every Butlin’s camp, acting as a guiding principle for the package-holiday operator. 

Anonymous drawing in Epitomata seu Reparationes totius philosophiae naturalis Aristotelis (The Natural Philosophy of Aristotle)

This anonymous drawing illustrates Aristotle’s belief that senses were gateways of perception, which is the subject of Harderwyck’s publication. Aristotle believed that our hearing, smell, taste, vision and touch were intimately connected to knowledge, wisdom and, ultimately, happiness. In this illustration, lines lead from the senses to the brain and heart, the gatekeepers of balance. 

Frontispiece to The Use of Passions

Henry, Earl of Monmouth, London, 1649
Translated from J F Senault’s original French version
Wellcome Collection: EPB/A/47762

This engraving represents Christian thinking about the proper and improper uses of the passions. They are chained together, connected at the top to reason, and below to love, representing the idea that all passions should be motivated by a virtuous love and held in check by reason. Joy is represented by a woman holding a jug and a goblet, suggesting the risks of intoxication. The accompanying text by Senault taught that true joy can only be found in heaven.

Anonymous drawing of viscera based on Mansur’s Anatomy

In al-Qānūn fī-t-tibb of Ibn Sīnā (The Canon of Avicenna), 1632

Wellcome Collection: MS Arabic 155

This is an Islamic medical encyclopedia transcribed in Isfahan, Iran, in 1632. It contains the research of the physician Abu Ali Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), who lived between 980 and 1037 CE, and remained a medical authority for centuries. The page opening shows an anatomical drawing of the digestive and nervous system, which was where he considered psychological problems such as grief and melancholy to originate. This theory resonates with contemporary research into the connection between intestinal and mental health.

“Our heart does not pound because we are afraid; fear arises from our pounding heart. Similarly, feelings of optimism and happiness have also been connected to changes in the body. Both heart-rate deceleration and heart-rate acceleration are observed in happiness and joy.”

Sarah Garfinkel, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, UK

Anonymous illustration of the heart

Copy of the 17th-century encyclopedia San-ts’ai t’u-hu, compiled by Wang Ch’I and Wang Ssu-I, unknown date
Wellcome Collection: Chinese collection 5

This book is believed to be a copy of the 17th-century Chinese encyclopedia ‘San-ts’ai t’u-hu’. It is open on a diagram depicting the ‘ruler’ of all organs, the heart, which is understood to be both the reflective and the emotional centre of a human being. In traditional Chinese medicine, different feelings are associated with different organs, and joy is located in the heart.

Description by Vivienne Lo, historian and practitioner of medicine at UCL’s China Centre for Health and Humanity

Listen to the full recording in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL


David Shrigley, 2020
Courtesy of David Shrigley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

“One of the surprises of the last decade or so has been the number of studies showing that how many friends we have and especially the quality of those friendships has more effect than anything else on our mental and even physical health, our sense of wellbeing and happiness, how much we trust those among whom we live, even how long we live.”

Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, University of Oxford

International Dining with Spice Islands Cookbook

Sister Corita Kent, 1963
First edition: Spice Islands Company, San Francisco

The ‘Spice Islands Cookbook’ contains international recipes and instructions on how to set up a dinner club with friends. These booklets were designed by the designer, educator and nun Corita Kent, and contain quotes on happiness from philosophers around the world. Using a colourful and painterly style, Kent’s art spread positive messages and addressed themes of social justice and community.

Holi festival

Unknown Lucknow painter, 19th century
Wellcome Collection: 45189i

The Holi festival is often referred to as the festival of colours and it is a Hindu tradition that celebrates the arrival of spring and the end of winter. This watercolour captures the festive atmosphere with music and revelry. People traditionally throw pigment at one another, with each colour being deeply symbolic. The festival is a time to come together, forgive and mend broken relationships. Many cultures have a version of the Holi festival as a way of celebrating seasonal change and renewal.

Crazy Community

Sam Jevon, 2016
Courtesy of the artist and Submit to Love Studios

In Sam Jevon’s ‘Crazy Community’, dogs are bigger than their owners and strangers embrace each other, creating an atmosphere of joyous civic pride. Jevon first took up drawing to help herself recuperate from a severe car accident, and has since refined her pen-and-ink technique and self-described “wobby-style”. She works in a collective art space called Submit to Love Studios, part of Headway East, a charity that supports artists with brain injury.


David Shrigley, 2020
Courtesy of David Shrigley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Family Portrait

Joy Labinjo, 2019
Courtesy of Cuperior Collection

Joy Labinjo’s paintings are inspired by a stash of family photographs she found at her parents’ house. The images depict her extended family in Nigeria and in the UK, where she was born. They reflect on African diaspora experience and domestic life, and explore intergenerational family dynamics. Family portraits typically depict a moment of harmonious familial happiness.

“What is distinctive about joy [...] is that it can break down distances between people, bringing us together – at least with those able to share the same delight. This explains joy’s traditional ties with something we feel is larger than ourselves, perhaps our teams winning at football, or other collective excitements. It’s a moment when we can escape that gloomy tyrant – ourselves.”

Lynne Segal, writer and activist

Smiley Face Protest, University of Maryland

Steve Budman, November 1971
Reproduction 2021
Courtesy of the artist

From Acid House to Extinction Rebellion, many movements have embraced the smiley as a symbol of both activism and positivity. This photograph documents an anti-Vietnam War protest by college students at the University of Maryland. By the early 1970s the war had persisted for more than a decade and US protests had become increasingly violent. In response, Steve Budman and the other students formed an impromptu smiley face as a powerful and peaceful statement.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL


David Shrigley, 2020
Courtesy of David Shrigley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Procession for eighteen

Amalia Pica, 2020–21

‘Procession for eighteen’ incorporates placards that have been pasted with colourful triangles. With their informal character and appropriated material, they lean against the wall as if left over from a march. When together, they create a line of bunting that recalls a street party and becomes a sign for protest and celebration simultaneously.

People regularly take to the streets to demonstrate against injustice. Amalia Pica’s work foregrounds the nature of hope that is integral to protest, and to the possibility of making a fairer and happier world. The work suggests that political positivity can serve a progressive function. Simple acts such as coming together to speak, march, sing and dance have a vital role in building community and increasing feelings of belonging and purpose.

Before the exhibition opened, participants were invited to take the placards on a procession and perform a series of formations, documented and presented in the exhibition through a film. The installation is also occasionally activated by invited performers who, unannounced, take a placard and walk around the building.

Listen to a description by the artist in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

“Activism, at its essence, is about imagining a place beyond suffering, a slice of heaven on earth, and fighting for it. Taking up space on a grey pavement, with hundreds of other protestors, eyes closed, singing as loud as possible, ‘We gon’ be alright’, one of the unofficial Black Lives Matter anthems.”

Joshua Virasami, artist, writer and political activist