Research and Enterprise

Experiences of women seeking asylum in Leeds brought to life in new exhibition

A new exhibition will be on show in Leeds City Centre this month, bringing to life the experiences of women seeking asylum in Leeds. Dr Maria De Angelis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, is the Project Director for the exhibition – Asylum in Art – which combines photography and audio to shine a light on life inside a British Immigration Removal Centre. 

Four women sitting in a chapel and talking animatedly

Our exhibition, 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. It takes place at the Leeds Church Institute on October 13, 14 and 15 and you can book your free place on Eventbrite.

Three women, standing outside, holding phones in the air with their backs to the camera

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 & 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 the 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 & beyond IRC walls. 

To protect the women who shared their stories with me, all the actors are students or colleagues from Leeds Beckett University.


What does photo-voice tell us?

One photo-voice concerns the amorality characterising 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’.


A woman - whose face we cannot see - wearing an apron in a kitchen, holding her hand out with three pound coins

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 the photo-voice below 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.
Benyu, from Zimbabwe, who spent 31 days on hunger strike, said: “They said I wasn’t going to be attending chapel anymore. Because in chapel we had ladies from other wings and when we had made friends - that’s where we planned the 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.

Four women sitting in a chapel and talking animatedly

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. It 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. 

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


Asylum in Art will be exhibited at the Leeds Church Institute on October 13, 14 and 15. All are welcome and entrance is free, but to comply with official social distancing guidelines, booking via Eventbrite is essential. The link also details full measures in place to keep visitors COVID safe. 

Asylum in Art is funded by the Centre for Applied Social Research at Leeds Beckett. 


Dr Maria De Angelis

Senior Lecturer / Leeds School Of Social Sciences

Dr Maria De Angelis is Senior Lecturer in Criminology. She undertook her doctoral research at the University of Hull in her specialist area - Human Trafficking. Maria's pedagogy and research foreground the relationship between criminal justice and social policy responses.

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