female dancing

The etiquette of the arms trade

Dr Jill Gibbon


Exhibition (M), Catalogue (B), Journal Article (D) Double weighted

Visual Storytelling

Reportage, Drawing, War, Arms trade


The UK and US governments regularly grant export licences for arms sales to unstable states and repressive regimes. How are these deals validated? Jill Gibbon uses drawing and performance to research the etiquette of the arms trade. She has visited arms fairs covertly in London, Paris, and Abu Dhabi by dressing up as an arms trader with a suit, and a sham business. Once inside, she draws the manners, hospitality and weapons; and collects complimentary gifts. The drawings combine observational and expressive approaches, challenging the implicit positivism of much reportage, and contributing to research about vision, documentary, and war. Gibbon’s performance as an arms trader brings a new twist to debates about the ethics of covert participant observation by using a cover as a metaphor for a wider masquerade of respectability.

Dr Gibbon’s new insights have interdisciplinary relevance, conveying sensuous aspects of weapons sales overlooked in social science research, as one of the first artists to respond to Bleiker’s call for an ‘aesthetic turn’ in studies of war. The significance and originality of the project is evidenced by the award of an early career fellowship from the Independent Social Research Foundation, a European competition for innovative research of intransigent problems.

Contexts include an exhibition and catalogue at the Peace Museum, Bradford 2018, funded by the ISRF and Leeds Beckett University. She has contributed to shows at the Platform Gallery, Belfast, 2017, and the RWA, Bristol, 2014. Gibbon was interviewed about the project in The Guardian, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and CAAT in 2014. She has written a chapter (Gibbon, 2015) and article (Gibbon and Sylvester, 2017) about using drawing and performance to research war. She gave talks at Lancaster University 2017, the University of Gloucester, 2017, the RWA and UWE in 2014; and papers at the AAH Conference, 2017, and Illustrating History, 2015.

Working undercover, artist Jill Gibbon sketches images of the surreal behind-the-scenes world of military fairs and expos to highlight how the arms trade treats missiles, tanks and bombs like any other commodity

Vijaykumar The Guardian, 2014

Trade fairs are always terrible events, but Gibbon’s arms fairs combine the dull, hard-drinking, portly chauvinism of the conventional conference with the hellish reality of violent, arbitrary, civilian death. Her hastily drawn outlines (all sketches were covert and in situ) of beaming, bikini-clad women posing for fat, swinish businessmen, in order to flog cluster bombs and phosphorous shells, provided the most shocking work of the show.

Robert Lewis Blog 2014

Provacative 'War Art' exhibition open in UK Al Jazeera (2014) Provocative ‘war art’ exhibition opens in UK, 22 August 2014.A provacative exhibition displaying 'war art' has just opened in the UK. Contemporary artists exposed to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Balkans are providing a unique insight into war.

Funding credits

Table of Contents is produced in partnership with Siobhan Davies Dance, the ICA (London), Tramway (Glasgow) and Arnolfini (Bristol) and supported by Arts Council England.