Leeds School of Social Sciences

Talking 'Asylum in Art' with Maria De Angelis

The ‘Asylum in Art’ photo-exhibition and ‘composite’ audio (narrating women’s experiences as a whole) is a photo-voice project taking the audience on an experiential tour of lived reality.

Abstract image of the outside of Broadcasting Place looking upwards at building B

1. What is the exhibition about?

Asylum in Art shines a lens on what life is like inside a British Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) and beyond release into a community in the city of Leeds.

3 women stand with backs to camera, raising phones above heads

2. What form does the exhibition take?

The exhibition is a photo-voice of 11 photographs taken by Jeremy Abrahams and a ‘composite’ audio (narrating women’s experiences as a whole). At its heart, photo-voice captures the tension between the institutional IRC (tasked with detaining and deporting those without papers) and the gendered, cultural, human face of detainees hidden away inside it. Using a photo-voice method, the exhibition reflects key narratives across detention experience: amongst them - a lack of institutional legitimacy; its modern slavery typology; its carceral practices, its netting of poor people of colour; counter-conduct and belonging both within and beyond IRC walls. To protect the women who shared their stories with me, all the actors are students or colleagues from Leeds Beckett University.

Woman in apron holds out hand with 3 pound coins in it

3. What does photo-voice tell us?

One photo-voice concerns the amorality characterizing asylum administration. In deciding who to detain and deport, the IRC reflects societal values towards gender, race, nationality, socio-economic status, colonial & post-colonial movement. Trinity from Nigeria had this to say: “They treat you as in times of slavery. They transport you, they control you, they take your freedom and your labour”. Asylum seekers who work illegally are detained for deportation but allowed to work whilst inside the IRC. Work is menial – serving food, washing dishes, sweeping floors - paid well-below minimum wage and women’s skills set. BAME (Black & Asian minority ethnic) women describe such practices as the typology of ‘modern slavery’.

4 women sit and interact in a chapel

4. Why a photo-voice method?

A significant strength of photo-voice is that it situates detainees as primary experts in the detention regime. This brings into focus the reality that IRCs are more than just human warehouses and their inhabitants possess autonomy and agency. As this photo-voice shows, in the struggle for survival, women’s ingenuity and creativity interrupts (albeit temporarily) the smooth workings of State power and control over people without rights of citizenship or belonging. When it comes to challenging institutional restrictions on women’s free association.:

“because in chapel we had ladies from other wings and when we had made friends - that’s where we planned the hunger strike” (Benyu from Zimbabwe, 31 days on hunger strike). The hunger strike not only disrupts the smooth running of the IRC but actively lowers its performance rating viz-a-viz contractual delivery of care.

5. Who else is involved in the project?

Asylum in Art is a collaborative project with Critical Friends from City of Sanctuary, Refugee Education Training Advice Service (RETAS); Toast-Love-Coffee café; Asmarina Voices; Hinsley Hall; and Universities Chaplaincy in Leeds. And is based on the collective experience of 15 former detainees - truly remarkable women whose generous sharing of stories has made the exhibition possible.

As it takes the audience on an experiential tour into the lived reality of detainees, it becomes an interactive process. Art as witness to trauma and resistance encourages all of us to think through oppressive dynamics imposed on people by the State and its institutions so we are better equipped to understand our place in asylum practices and our capacity for social change.

Hope you can come along and join in the conversation, but if unable an e-link to the full exhibition will be posted following the event.

Aslylum in Art is funded by the Centre for Applied Social Research

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