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Research Case studies

The Etiquette of the Arms Trade


Our work

The UK and US regularly sell weapons to repressive regimes, countries at war, and unstable states. Saudi Arabia is a ‘priority market’ for missiles and fighter jets despite Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, a conflict that has taken a particular toll on children and civilians. The remains of UK and US-made weapons have been found in attacks on civilian sites, yet sales to the regime continue.

This project asks:

  • How are international arms sales justified, legitimized, and normalised?
  • How might art be used to identify and challenge processes of legitimization in the arms trade?
  • What part does art play in legitimizing the arms trade?

Jill Gibbon is an artist, using drawing and performance to research the defence industry.  She has visited arms fairs covertly since 2008 by dressing up as a security consultant. Once inside, she draws the manners, hospitality and weapons; and collects complimentary gifts.  She uses the drawings, gifts, and elements of her performance to explore the etiquette that validates the industry.  Her research also considers the ways that arms companies’ use cultural events and arts sponsorship to improve their public relations.

The project is interdisciplinary, using art to address a problem usually the preserve of the social sciences. As such it seeks to demonstrate the relevance of aesthetic methods beyond the gallery. The research has been disseminated as exhibitions including at the Bradford Peace Museum (2018), Platform Gallery Belfast (2017), James Hockney Gallery Farnham (2017), and the Royal West Academy Bristol (2014); articles; a book; and talks.

Our impact

The international social and political significance of Gibbon’s work has been recognised by the award of an ISRF fellowship given to ‘innovative research of intransigent social problems’.

The exhibitions, talks, and workshops resulting from Gibbon’s research have attracted nearly 8,000 visitors, including the highest ever at the Bradford Peace Museum leading to the extension of the show in a pop-up venue in the city. Gail Ritchie, curator at the Platform Gallery remarked, ‘Gallery visitors … were both intrigued and alarmed by the industry which Gibbon’s work confronted – many stated that they had not thought about war ‘in that way’. The exhibitions have led to invitations to exhibit at the Ruhr Museum, Essen, and the nGbK, Berlin.

A co-founding member of Art Not Arms, Gibbon organised a successful petition that contributed to BAE Systems withdrawing as a partner of the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North, drawing public attention to the arms manufacturer’s use of art to improve its public image. The campaign was covered by the BBC (02/03/18), The Guardian (09/03/18), Frieze (09/03/18), The Artist’s Information Company (09/03/18), The Art Newspaper (08/03/18), and Arts Professional (09/03/18).

Gibbon’s research has attracted international press coverage in relation to arms deals with Russia (2014), and Saudi Arabia (2018). The Guardian approached her for an interview during her exhibition at the Royal West Academy when a Russian missile shot down passenger plane MH17, initiating a scandal about the European weapons trade. The article noted that Gibbon’s drawings provide insights into ‘revelations about British and French firms’ arms deals with Russia’ because they ‘highlight how the arms trade treats missiles, tanks and bombs like any other commodity’ (27/07/14). This has been followed by interviews with the BBC World Service (29/07/14, 28/0418), Al Jazeera (22/08/14), BBC Radio 4 (08/05/18), and a second Guardian article (11/04/18).

Gibbon’s use of performance, drawing and activism has influenced methods of peaceful protest. Gibbon’s work was publicized in activist networks through an interview with CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) in 2014 and regularly featured in ‘Peace News’, a newspaper for the UK grassroots and justice movement. The activist group, ‘Art the Arms Fair’ used Gibbon’s drawings to launch a campaign encouraging artists and the general pubic to make art to protest against the 2017 DSEI arms fair, and her work was included in the subsequent exhibition. Organiser, Sam Walton commented: ‘The arms trade likes to present itself as just another sector, dealing in tools not instruments of death. Jill Gibbon’s work plucks out the moments where the banal facade slips, and the horror of what is being sold slips through. She makes a corrupt, secretive trade visible, bringing something that is determinedly hidden from public attention, to light.’‘Art the Arms Fair’ was in the Observer/Nesta list of ‘New Radicals 2018’ ‘changing the UK for the better’.

Gibbon’s impact on war art and reportage drawing has been recognised by her inclusion in the recent book ‘Reportage Illustration: Visual Journalism’ by Gary Embury & Mario Minichiello (2018), with an interview with Gibbon, and examples of her work throughout.

Next steps

Gibbon continues to draw in arms fairs in Europe and the Middle East, disseminating the work in art, academic, and activist contexts. In 2019 she will exhibit as part of ‘Art As Weapon’ at the nGbK, Berlin; ‘Krieg. Macht. Sinn.’ at the Ruhr Museum, Essen; and ‘Art the Arms Fair 2019,’ in London. She is writing an article using complementary gifts from arms companies to discuss the disavowal of the material properties of weapons in the defence industry.

Research outputs

Plus Icon Exhibitions
  • From Nope to Hope, Graphics and Politics 2008 -2018
    Brixton Rec, September 15 – 30th 2018
  • The Etiquette of the Arms Trade, undercover drawings of the arms trade
    Bradford Peace Museum, April 13th – June 28th 2018
    Extended until the end of 2018 in a pop-up show, 60 Kirkgate, Bradford
  • Transcriptor: illustration and documentary materialism
    James Hockney Gallery, UCA, Farnham, Surrey, Oct 19th – Jan 10th 2017
  • And This Too: art and conflict
    Platform Gallery, Belfast, Nov 3rd - 30th 2017
  • Shock and Awe: contemporary artists at war and peace
    Royal West Academy, Bristol, July-Sept 2014 
Plus Icon Publications
  • Gibbon, J (2018) ‘I Go Undercover into Arms Fairs and Secretly Draw’ The Conversation, March 22nd 2018
  • Gibbon, J. and Sylvester, C. (2017) ‘Thinking Like an Artist-Researcher about War’ Millennium, January 17th 2017
  • Gibbon, J. (2015) ‘Hiding in the Light, drawings of the arms trade’, in Sylvester, C. (ed) Masquerades of War, London: Routledge

Media mentions

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