Less than 10 per cent of Londoners know that the world’s largest arms fair comes to their city every two years. Taking over the entire ExCeL Centre – 100,000 square metres, or 14 football pitches – DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) is a vast affair. Outside, warships cruise intimidatingly up the Thames, Apache helicopters demonstrate their capabilities overhead, and submarines skulk past unnoticed.
And who is all this for? The guest list includes a veritable ‘who’s who’ of repression and human rights abuse. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Pakistan, the Philippines and Kazakstan will all be perusing the aisles for weapons (which in the past have included illegal torture weapons and cluster bombs); they’ll be wined and dined courtesy of the public purse too.
We know that right now Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen with UK-made fighter jets. The UK government gives aid money to Yemen while simultaneously arming those that harm them. It claims to champion human rights on the world stage but it sells weapons to countries on its own human rights concern list. This isn’t just hypocrisy, it’s ridiculous. It’s also shameful; we can’t build our economy on the bodies of innocent people.
Each time this circus of death comes to London people oppose it vigorously. They camp out by the ExCeL, lie down in front of lorries, abseil off bridges, conduct religious ceremonies in the road to block traffic, shout at arms dealers on the way to their fancy dinners, and just generally cause so much nuisance that this year the fair’s set-up is severely behind schedule.
And, yet, the figure I quoted at the beginning is troubling. Few people continue to know that the arms fair happens at all – they’ve done a great job at hiding it in plain sight behind the name DSEI and on the edge of London. However, when people do make that link between the atrocities they see around the world and deals being made in E16 they’re shocked and angered.
That’s where Art the Arms Fair comes in. This year, we’ve decided to use art as a way of raising the arms fair’s profile. We believe that something easier to engage with than some protests will bring in new audiences and ultimately new voices to growing opposition against DSEI and growing criticism of the manner in which the UK government prioritises profits over people when it comes to weapon sales.
Art the Arms Fair consists of over 130 works of art, from the tiniest painting to a half-scale replica of a Tomahawk missile. We have work made by people sat at the side of the road on the main day of action last week, and we have a brand new Banksy – and everything in between.Walking around the exhibition you not only get a sense of people’s anger but a desire for something new, something peaceful and beautiful. It’s both uplifting and energising to see the passion put into the works, and that’s another reason why art is the perfect choice to raise awareness of the arms fair further afield.
Art can communicate in a way that words cannot: complex ideas and situations are conveyed in a manner that stimulates an emotional response and connection, not just a rational one. We need both those things, and combining art with political argument, and the empathy this generates, could push more people to speak out, and be the momentum needed to bring our government back in line and stop the arms fair.
Art the Arms Fair runs until 15 September, to coincide with DSEI, including evening performance events. Find out more at artthearmsfair.com