Unwrapping the etiquette of the arms trade

Increasing understanding amongst the public and arts professionals of how international arms trading is legitimised through cultural rituals - music, hospitality and etiquette.

Unwrapping the etiquette of the arms trade

the challenge

The UK is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, selling weapons to countries that the Foreign Office has listed as human rights abusers, including Bahrain despite its violent suppression of pro-democracy protests, and Saudi Arabia during airstrikes on Yemen. The arms trade is one of the world’s most secretive industries and largely a mystery to the public.

Jill Gibbon is an artist, using drawing and performance to research the etiquette of the arms trade.


Lifting the lid on the murky world of arms sales, the artist Jill Gibbon has been infiltrating trade fairs organized by the defence industry for the last decade.

Boff Whalley Commoners Choir leader

The Approach

She visits arms fairs covertly across Europe and the Middle East by dressing up as a security consultant. Once inside, she draws and collects complementary gifts, exploring how arms deals are normalised and glamorised through dress, manners and hospitality.

Her research is unique in using art to give an insight into the secretive world of the arms trade. Her drawings show tanks open for viewing, champagne served alongside missiles, and a string quartet on the back of a military truck. Complementary gifts include stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, toffees and condoms.

The impact

Gibbon’s research has introduced a new perspective on the international arms trade that has raised public awareness of the ways that international weapons sales are normalised through cultural rituals, including the sponsorship of cultural events. Her research has informed a play on the arms trade, and resulted in a prominent arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, being forced to relinquish sponsorship of two national cultural events. The significance, originality and rigour of her research has been recognised with an Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) Early Career Fellowship.

  1. Influencing public awareness of culture and the arms trade

    Gibbon’s research has introduced understanding to public debate of how weapons manufacturers appropriate cultural rituals to distance themselves from the use of their products. As a result of her exhibitions, Gibbon attracted international press coverage including one-to-one interviews, during which Gibbon shared new insights about the etiquette of arms fairs to combined audiences of over 2,114,442 (Source: Kantar). Following press coverage of Gibbon’s work, the exhibitions at the Bradford Peace Museum (BPM) and Royal West Academy (2014) attracted unusually high audiences.

I did not know that the UK makes arms that are sold around the world and that are responsible for harming civilians ... [this is an] eye-opening exhibition [which] unpicks the mystique of the arms trade.

Visitor to Gibbon's exhibitions
  1. Informing arts production

    Gibbon’s work was used to inform a new contemporary arts production. After seeing Gibbon’s work at the BPM the Common Wealth Theatre Company included a scene of an arms fair in their play ‘I Have Met the Enemy’. The actors based gestures on Gibbon’s drawings which provided insights into a world which they would not otherwise have had access to. Co-Artistic Director Evie Manning wrote, ‘The exhibition's observations and depictions of the 'performance of respectability' has informed our play in such a way that we have built a significant opening scene around this idea and the characters, action and gestures that The Etiquette of the Arms Trade explored’.

  2. Influencing collective action

    Gibbon’s research contributed to an Art Not Arms campaign that successfully persuaded GEON to drop sponsorship from arms company BAE Systems in just five days. Gibbon’s research made a distinct and material contribution to the campaign in three ways.

    • First, she co-founded a campaign group Art Not Arms, and wrote a successful online petition informed by her research, collecting 2,366 signatures and national press coverage
    • Second, her drawings provided new insights that influenced the Commoners Choir, a GEON headline act, to pull out of the event in protest, only rejoining following BAE System’s withdrawal
    • Third, the impact of Gibbon’s research was documented in an installation at BALTIC during GEON, seen by audiences of 166,851. Artists Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan built sculptural faces into the gallery walls and produced a newspaper narrating a history of anti-power stances including Gibbon’s research

Research outputs

  • ‘Kreig. Mach. Sinn’, Ruhr Museum, Esse
    November 12th 2018 - April 30th 2019
  • 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

  • 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


  • Art, design and performance
  • Culture and applied social sciences
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