As a Major Military Weapons Fair Descends on London, Artists Are Mounting a Challenge—and One Plans to Infiltrate

The artist Jill Gibbon exposes the surreal world of an arms fair where the champagne flows amid military hardware and "less lethal" weapons.

Shepard Fairey Peace Guard 2 (2019). Copyright the artist.

Many of the world’s arms dealers and weapons makers will gather in London next week for a vast and lucrative trade fair. The artist Jill Gibbon could be there too—undercover.

Gibbon has infiltrated defense industry events for the past decade. “The freebies are extraordinary,” she tells artnet News. Once they included a candy in a black wrapper with the message: “Welcome to Hell.”

Now, a print featuring the macabre candy, as well as Gibbon’s on-the-spot sketches of the buyers, sellers, and the hardware on offer, are highlights of an extraordinary exhibition and charity auction in London, the proceeds of which will go toward campaigning against the arms trade. More than 70 international artists have contributed work to the second edition of “Art the Arms Fair,” including Shepard Fairey, Anish Kapoor, the Guerrilla Girls, Hito Steyerl, as well as the veteran British political artist Peter Kennard.

Meanwhile, in East London, where the 2019 Defense and Security Equipment International fair will take place, around 50 people have been been arrested as they attempt to stop the tanks, planes, drones, and missiles from arriving. The peaceful demonstrations during the arms fair’s set up have been largely overlooked by the media as the battle rages in parliament between Boris Johnson’s beleaguered government and MPs opposed to his “do or die” plan for Britain to leave Europe by October 31.

Anish Kapoor, <i>untitled</i>(2015), copyright the artist, courtesy of Art the Arms Fair.

Anish Kapoor, untitled (2015), copyright the artist, courtesy of Art the Arms Fair.

The protest exhibitions and talks being held across four venues in Peckham, South London, aim to raise awareness that the world’s largest arms fair is taking place in the city. Artists and performers hope to challenge the industry and expose its human cost through art, comedy, and music, culminating in the charity auction on Friday. September 13.

In a statement, Kapoor condemned the arms trade and its “conscience free sale of barbaric weaponry to all corners.” The British artist calls it a “vile trade.”

Inside the Arms Fair ‘Bubble’

Gibbon, who is a senior lecturer in graphic arts at Leeds Beckett University in the North of England, says that visiting an arms fair is a surreal experience. She describes a string quartet playing Handel and Mozart on the back of a military truck while hostesses hand out champagne and gifts. “[Fairs] are a bubble. It is all about the products and investments,” she says. “The human targets are invisible.”

Jill Gibbon, arms trade sketch. Courtesy of Art the Arms Fair.

Jill Gibbon, arms trade sketch. Courtesy of Art the Arms Fair.

Among the hardware on sale are weapons designed to be used against civilians. Products like tear gas used to be called “non lethal,” says Gibbon. Now, they are euphemistically called “less-lethal weapons,” Gibbon says, pointing out that protesters in Bahrain have died from the effects of the chemicals.

Invited countries include Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which a United Nations panel of experts have accused of war crimes in the Yemen. A spokesman for the activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade says that the guest list for the arms fair also includes regimes that abuse human rights. He points out that Saudi Arabia has used UK-made fighter jets and bombs used against civilians in the Yemen.

Gibbon says that she has been able to document arms fairs under cover, including one memorable event in Abu Dhabi, partly because she is a woman. “The defense industry is very white and male and the fairs are very gendered, but companies are trying to get more women on their boards,” she says. Wearing a uniform of a “suit and pearls” helps, as does the fact that “arms fairs are full of shady people who are not what they seem,” she says.

While Gibbon will be trying to visit incognito, representing a fake business, three members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet are due to attend the arms fair as VIPs. The event takes place with the support of the UK government. Such is the importance of the industry to the British economy, it is unlikely that even the Brexit political crisis will keep them away.

“Art the Arms Fair,” September 3 through September 13, Maverick in Peckham, South London, various venues. 

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