Posted on 10 May 2024 in arms trade, art, news

Gifts From the Arms Trade

ISRF Fellow, Jill Gibbon, and photographer, Ricky Adam, are working on a photo book of gifts collected during a decade infiltrating the international arms trade

Adam Smith

Image Credit: Ricky Adams

This article was written by a team member of Universal Impact.

An artist and ISRF Fellow who goes undercover at arms fairs is releasing a book filled with photographs of the “disturbing” free gifts handed out by weapons makers.

While posing as a security consultant, Jill Gibbon has collected dozens of freebies including toy tanks, fighter jets, armoured cars, pens in the shape of military drones and sweets carrying the slogan “Welcome to hell”.

Jill, who disguises herself in a corporate suit, heels and a string of fake pearls to infiltrate these events, is now producing a collection of photos of the items she has gathered over the past decade.

Her work, which has been supported by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF), reveals the true character of the international arms trade at a “boom time” for the industry amid ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Jill, a Reader in Graphic Arts at Leeds Beckett University who has written about her experiences in The Conversation, says:

The gifts give an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous and secretive industries. Arms companies justify weapons production as necessary for defence. The gifts reveal another purpose, showing how weapons are trivialised as commodities for an international market.

In arms fairs, missiles, bombs and fighter jets are lined up like luxury products under spotlights, as waiting staff circulate with champagne, beer, sweets and toys. Clients include warring and repressive regimes. The impact of this trade is horrifically clear in Gaza, Yemen and Ukraine. Yet, arms fairs are hidden from public scrutiny, surrounded by police and security guards. The gifts show the culture of this hidden industry.

After starting to covertly visit arms fairs in 2007, Jill quickly found that the scale and complexity of the weapons industry “defied conventional research methods” – so she began producing drawings from inside these shadowy events.

Gifts From Arms Fairs

At arms fairs, many companies give away complimentary gifts – stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks, condoms, and sweets with slogans. What might these objects tell us about the way weapons are regarded in the arms industry?

Read On…

With the support of an ISRF Early Career Fellowship, she has put together “an archive of the drawings and other artefacts from the fairs to explore the rituals of dress, manners, and hospitality that legitimise and normalise the international trade in weapons”.

Her research has taken her to arms fairs across Europe and the Middle East, collecting free gifts including grenade-shaped stress balls and even condoms with “the ultimate protection” emblazoned on the wrapper.

In September, she attended the Defence and Security Exhibition International (DSEI) – one of the world’s largest arms fairs which takes place every two years in London – leaving with a branded carrier bag full of freebies.

Jill adds:

When I share pictures of these items online, one of the hardest things is emphasising that they are genuine items and not just art pieces I’ve created to make a statement.

It’s the kind of thing that someone would make as a satire. The arms industry gives itself away through its own marketing.”

Jill has previously displayed her undercover sketches at the Peace Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, which hosted an exhibition called The Etiquette of the Arms Trade: Ten Years Drawing in Arms Fairs.

As well as an artist, Jill is also an activist and in 2018 she took part in the protests over Defence giant BAE Systems’ sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North, an 11-week arts festival staged with £5m of government funding.

Her book, which is being produced in collaboration with photographer Ricky Adam and has the working title Gifts From the Arms Trade, is currently in production and is expected to be released by autumn this year.