Photo Essays

Using Art to Voice Opposition to the Arms Trade

Dozens of artists are showcasing at Art the Arms fair in London, a protest exhibition that runs concurrent to the notorious Defence and Security Equipment International.

Ralph Ziman, Beaded AK 47’s in Crate (7 Guns) 2 (2013), installation made of wire, beads, and wood (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Every two years, international arms companies, governments, and militaries converge on London for the world’s biggest arms fair, the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI). And every two years, protestors voice their opposition to the UK’s role in the global arms trade. This year, a group of artists and activists are staging the second edition of the Art the Arms Fair: a ten-day pop-up exhibition and program of events, including  art workshops, spoken word, and musical performances.

Jill Gibbon, “Welcome to Hell” (2019), Real DSEI sweet in wrapper, on mounting

The works, which are in a range of mediums from photography to installation, explore the themes of militarization, migration, and climate change. For the organizers of the exhibition, these are “intrinsically linked” to the sale of military equipment, such as small arms missiles, tanks, fighter jets, and surveillance systems, all of which are subsidized by the British government and taxpayers through the arms fair. Most pieces in the exhibition are for sale or will be auctioned on the final day of the exhibition.

One of the fair’s volunteers told Hyperallergic that the first edition of the Art the Arms Fair was held “in the shadow” of DSEI, which takes place on the London Docklands. Art the Arms Fair 2019, however, is being held across three venues in Peckham, a district that is centrally located and culturally vibrant, so as to attract a greater number of visitors.

Opie Opie, “Galmourising Violence” (2017), decorated flack jacket

The exhibition and events are meant to raise awareness about DSEI, which has long courted controversy. In 2017, eight protestors who blockaded the fair were acquitted after the judge saw evidence of illegal weapons on sale. That same year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that he was “opposed to London being used as a market place for the trade of weapons to those countries that contribute to human rights abuses,” but added that he did not have the power to ban the event.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled (2015), polymer gravure type etching on French BFK Rives natural 280 gsm paper

Anish Kapoor, whose abstract monochrome etching “Untitled” (2015) is represented in the show, issued a statement chastising the “multi-billion pound business” of the arms trade, saying: “The human, environmental and spiritual cost of this vile trade is a shameful legacy that we all carry. We must therefore stand up and oppose this trade and all who profit from the violence, sadness and destruction it brings.”

Jill Gibbon’s concertina sketchbooks

For the last decade, artist Jill Gibbon has attended fairs around the world in the guise of an arms trader, donning a skirt suit, kitten heels, and a string of pearls. In her concertina sketchbook series, she draws the fair’s other attendees in fold-out A6 notebooks, as they inspect weapons of mass destruction and guzzle champagne. In another work, she presents a boiled sweet which she was given as a freebie by the arms manufacturer, Bofors. The black sweet wrapper bears the chilling slogan: “Welcome to Hell.”

Michelle and Jacek Tylicki, “Art Wars” (2019)
Michelle and Jacek Tylicki, “Art Wars” (2019)

Other works relate more broadly to global wars and conflicts, including the Iraq War, the Syrian and Yemini Civil Wars, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. During Michelle Tylicki’s performance piece “Art Wars” (2019), light bulbs filled with black paint are fired at a white canvas, as a recreation of her father Jacek Tylicki’s street performance in the 1980s in the East Village, Manhattan. The initial performance was in response to both gang violence during the New York crack epidemic and the Polish 1970 strikes against increases in the price of food and everyday objects, which left 42 people dead and thousands more were wounded. In this piece, violence becomes a creative rather than destructive force.

Guerrilla Girls, “Estrogen Bomb” (2003-2017), digital print

Many of the works in the exhibition have a strong satirical bent. A famous poster by the Guerilla Girls, “Estrogen Bomb” (2003–2017), and a photograph by Tristan Oliver, “Pink Tank” (2019), depict war as a specifically male enterprise. Two crates of colorfully beaded AK-47s by Ralph Ziman (2013) and a flak jacket studded with rhinestones by Opie Opie (2017) parodically aestheticize the tools of war and destruction. A stylized painting by the street artist Angry Dan (2019) bears the upbeat command “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” while a group of missiles rains down on the blazing earth.

Angry Dan “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow” (2019), oil on canvas

In addition to the main exhibition at Safehouses 1 & 2 (two abandoned houses-turned-exhibition spaces), there is a takeover of Peckham’s AMP Gallery by the artist Peter Kennard. It consists of a series of large-scale oil paintings that lean against the gallery walls like tombstones. Each depicts a mixture of military paraphernalia such as medals and helmets and the debris of war — bloodied bandages and torn flags. In the exhibition material, the artist declared: “I have been making anti-war art in London, where I was born, for 50 years. I’m pleased to show my work as part of the response against this obscene arms fair.”

Installation view of Peter Kennard’s work

Art the Arms Fair runs September 3-13 at Safehouses 1 & 2 (137 & 139 Copeland Rd), AMP Gallery (1 Acorn Parade), and AMP Studio (897a Old Kent Road). There will be an auction and closing party at AMP Studio on the final day. 

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