The art of war: the artist who sketches under cover at arms fairs

Disguised in pearls and a suit, Jill Gibbon goes to weapons fairs and covertly draws the attendees – revealing the hidden faces of those hawking the tools of mass destruction

Among the sea of pinstripes at international arms fairs, Jill Gibbon doesn’t stand out. In her dark skirt suit, cream silk blouse, glasses and pearls, she looks every bit the global security expert she claims to be on the accreditation form. Yet she is not at the expo to broker a deal, but to secretly draw those making them.

Armed with a discreet notebook and pen, Gibbon aims to penetrate the “veneer of respectability” she says cloaks such events, revealing the vulnerabilities of those who make a living selling weapons of mass destruction. These include: the sales rep vomiting after starting on the champagne at 11am, the young woman in the tight dress bringing an incongruous glamour to a Scud missile stand, the string quartet serenading bomb-makers on the back of a military truck and the mannequins wearing gas masks.

Gibbon’s mini concertina sketch books
Gibbon’s mini concertina sketchbooks Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Gibbon has been sketching arms fairs since 2007, when she applied for a pass to DSEI, or Defence and Security Equipment International, which takes place every other year in London. She got in using her real name but gave her occupation as “war artist” and said she wanted to practise drawing military hardware. The trick worked for a few years until an unusually observant security guard noticed that she was sketching not tanks but arms dealers. She protested her innocence but he was having none of it. “If you’re a war artist why don’t you go to Iraq and draw?” he said, and escorted her to the exit.

Unwilling to give up, she took the drastic measure of changing her name by deed poll to get back in. She also created a sham company and website to make her look legitimate. Her new fake identity was a passport to arms fairs all around the world until 2015, when her lanyard never arrived for DSEI. She tried to blag her way in, putting on her pearls and suit and playing the outraged businesswoman when she reached the front of the queue. Alas, her card had been marked. “The young lad looked me up on the computer and could barely keep a straight face as he told me my name had been associated with protest,” she says.

Sweets given out on visits to the fairs
Sweets given out on visits to the fairs Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It would be easier to slip in unnoticed if she were a man, she says with a sigh. “These events remain very, very male dominated and there tends to be this gender divide where the men are the ones doing business and the women are giving out champagne and free gifts.” Over the years she has amassed an impressive collection of arms-related freebies, including a trio of stress balls made up as tanks, bombs and grenades. All will be on display at an exhibition at Bradford’s Peace Museum later this month, alongside the sketches she makes in pocket-sized concertina notebooks, which open out like a tableau.

Gibbon is careful not to break the law. She makes sure not to draw certain people present in an identifiable way. “I’d have no qualms about drawing the chairman of BAE Systems because he’s undoubtedly complicit,” she says. “But I know that there are others who just end up there: agency workers, people working for [security company] G4S.”

Anyway, she says, any fraud on her part is appropriate since arms fairs perpetrate their own double-dealing: “There’s the deception that it’s just an ordinary business, when really it involves selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, who use them to carry out war crimes in Yemen.”

She has been involved in the peace movement since moving to Leeds as a student and became radicalised visiting Greenham Common, the 80s anti-nuclear peace camp run by women outside a cruise missile station in Berkshire. Last month she began a petition that successfully forced BAE Systems to pull out of a deal to sponsor the government-backed Great Exhibition of the North, a summer-long celebration of the north of England’s “pioneering spirit” taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead.

The Commoners Choir, a singing group from Leeds, was one of the first acts to refuse to perform if the arms firm was involved, kicking off a domino effect that prompted pop star Nadine Shah and others to follow. “The first the Commoners Choir knew about the sponsors was when they were on the train back from Newcastle after the launch and found a BAE mug in their goodie bag,” she says. “Now they have agreed to play the opening night of my exhibition in Bradford.”

Gibbon’s work goes on show in Bradford on 13 April.
Gibbon has been branded a ‘subsidy-addicted’ artist – though she says she’s never received public subsidies for her art Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Gibbon was outraged when Jake Berry, the government minister responsible for the northern powerhouse, called her and other protesters “subsidy-addicted artists” and “snowflakes”. She started another petition demanding an apology, which has been less successful. “I’ve never received any public subsidies for my art,” she insists. “The people that are subsidy-addicted are in the arms industry.”

A hand-grenade stress reliever.
A hand-grenade stress reliever. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

For the last five years Gibbon has been teaching at Leeds Beckett University, but earlier funded her artistic endeavours with cleaning jobs and cafe work. She hopes to continue going to arms fairs, which is why she asked for her face not to be identifiable in the Guardian’s photos. We agreed for certain biographical details not to be included in this article either: her age, her place of birth, where exactly she lives in a lovely stone semi with turquoise floorboards. But if she’s so keen on going incognito, why give an interview at all? “Because there’s no point doing it if I keep it hidden. I have got so much material now that it’s time to disseminate it.”


Helen Pidd, North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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