LONDON — Every two years, government representatives, military vendors, and many others interested in buying or selling arms converge on London, for Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI). And every two years, a program of protests raises awareness of how damaging this event is. This year, the protesters have a new and surprising weapon in their arsenal: art.
The seventh floor of a generic office building in Poplar, a largely working-class neighborhood of East London, isn’t an obvious location for a pop-up art show. Yet this building is home to the first-ever Art the Arms Fair, a week-long exhibition to draw attention to and protest DSEI, which is happening two miles down the road at ExCeL London. Over 100 activists have been arrested so far this year in demonstrations against the arms fair, which has been controversial for facilitating the UK government’s sale of weapons to countries with poor human rights records, and for purveying devices used for torture and other illegal weapons.
One of the core organizers of Art the Arms Fair, the artist Amy Corcoran, explains the choice of venue. For one thing, it was free, as the space was vacant and the building’s owner made it available at no cost. For another, it’s within sight of the massive conference center where DSEI is being held, and where warships and military helicopters have been arriving over the last week.
“We wanted to make it accessible to people who had been to the protests,” Corcoran told Hyperallergic. “If we had been in a flashy gallery in central London, it wouldn’t have felt right.”
The exhibition features 145 artworks, which can also be toured virtually. The works are a mix of paintings, sculptures, prints, and pieces that are less easy to define. For example, one consists of a hanging pair of turd shapes wrapped in masking tape and attached to a glittery sign proclaiming “POO TO YOU”; the sign in turn is connected to a flip book of scatological drawings, all of which is meant to capture the immediate response to learning that one of the world’s largest weapons shows is being hosted by a country that professes to promote peace and human rights. The space is also hosting a nightly program of events, including performance art, spoken word, poetry, and comedy.
And, of course, there’s the Banksy. The organizers of Art the Arms Fair announced on opening night that a new work by Banksy, depicting with incongruous humor the devastating effects of a drone attack, would be auctioned off. The reserve price is just £10, and many bidders are expected. All proceeds from the sale of other artworks are going to the non-profit Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). But the money from the Banksy piece, at the artist’s stipulation, will be split between CAAT and the NGO Reprieve, which campaigns against drone strikes and other human rights abuses.
The Banksy piece, “Civilian Drone Strike,” is the only one in the exhibition that has its own guard. It also has its own setting: a living room-style setup that drives home the horror of being attacked from above in one’s own home. While the Banksy has understandably been getting a lot of attention, the exhibition’s organizers strove to keep things egalitarian. Submissions were invited from both established and less-well-known artists, and these mingle together on the space’s walls. Corcoran explains that the organizers wanted people to participate “without feeling like they have to be a certain kind of artist, to be at a certain point in their career.”
Contributions were also encouraged from artists who were inspired to make works during the protests. A major protest against DSEI took place on September 9, and was accompanied by a “day of creative action” next to the arms fair site.
Artists working on this day included Iona Magnus and Bader Ben Hirsi, who were completing their first collaborative artwork. They’d been planning this piece for a week, and had come to the site with raw materials, including black-and-white printouts of images from the civil war in Yemen, and a plan: to create a flag of Yemen consisting of screen-printed and collaged images, along with a spray-painted image of the Saudi Crown Prince. One aim of the piece was to draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s role in attacking rebel forces in Yemen and worsening the country’s humanitarian crisis, as well as to the role of the UK and the US in supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. Another Yemeni artist donating work to Art the Arms Fair was graphic artist Ahmed Jahaf, although he contributed his pieces remotely from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
The situation in Yemen drives home the urgency of these protests, Corcoran said. On the one hand, British-made warplanes are bombing Yemen. (Another organizer of Art the Arms Fair, Sam Walton, was arrested earlier this year for attempting to disarm one of these planes.) On the other hand, the UK is a major aid donor to Yemen. “It’s not a hard point to grasp,” noted Corcoran, referring to the UK’s hypocritical position. However, there’s limited public awareness of governmental complicity in the conflict, or even that international arms deals are being struck right in London. Indeed, few Londoners are aware of DSEI.
Corcoran, a longtime peace activist who’s completing a PhD project on public art that spotlights migration issues, sees Art the Arms Fair as a way to engage a different audience than the usual protest crowd. “It’s a different kind of protest,” she said. “Maybe people don’t feel comfortable going to a site where there have been arrests.”
One of her own contributions to the exhibition shows a softer side to pacifist organizing. The watercolor painting, “Life and Death” (2017), depicts a “die-in,” a common theatrical tactic at anti-war protests. But there’s a deliberate softness to the work, in contrast to the confrontational images of protests that the media often choose to circulate. “Life and Death” captures the camaraderie and the surprising beauty of a die-in, Corcoran explained. With these activists, “there’s such an interesting contrast between their vitality and what they’re representing.”
There’s a similarly powerful contrast between the destructive force represented by a massive weapons convention and the enthusiastic artists and volunteers of this pacifist exhibition.
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