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The Pansy Project: A Response To Homophobia

In the build up to Pride, artist Paul Harfleet explains the MCR homophobia that inspired his decade-old project

Written by . Published on August 18th 2014.

The Pansy Project: A Response To Homophobia

IN 2004, Manchester fine-art student Paul Harfleet suffered three separate incidents of homophobia on the streets of Manchester.

Once on Upper Brook Street, then on Grosvenor Street, finally by B of the Bang - a former Commonwealth sculpture at the City of Manchester Stadium (now the Etihad Stadium).

"There we planted 2000 pansies in a line from where the man first entered the park to where they eventually found his body."

From those homophobic slurs came The Pansy Project, a reaction by Harfleet, now an accomplished London-based artist currently collaborating with Manchester's Pride Festival, to mark the locations of these homophobic insults, attacks, even murders, by the planting of pansies.

Switching, as Harfleet explains, "a location of hate into one of beauty."

Paul Harfleet in the Doubletree Hilton where some of his images are currently on showPaul Harfleet in the Doubletree Hilton where his images are currently on show

“At the time of these incidents I'd become very interested in psychogeography, the memories and feelings attached to a given place - what it meant to walk the city.

“I wouldn’t talk much about these incidents in the past, but it came apparent to me that there was something I had to do to mark these spots in some way.”

Harfleet decided to mark these locations of homophobic abuse with the planting of pansies, both a popular garden flower and a derogatory term often used to describe an effeminate gay man.

Not that Harfleet was sold on the pretty little flower as a symbol at first. "I didn't even like pansies at the time," explains Harfleet. "I thought of them as weak and feeble little things. But the association between the flower and the meaning was too strong.

"I love them now, I'm able to photograph them in a way that makes them look proud and strong. I like the juxtaposition of their prettiness against the often vulgar titles of the images, titles like You Queer C**t or F**king Fa**ot (Harfleet titles his images using the homophobic slur used at that location).

"We're gonna bash you," Bloom Street, Manchester

The Pansy Project, Brooklyn, New YorkPlanted for Dwan Prince - Brooklyn, New York, 2006

Of course, leaving flowers at the location of an incident carries its own connotations. So Harfleet was keen to distance the project from any sombre tones.

"When you see flowers at the scene of an accident, that instantly changes how you feel about that space. I didn't want The Pansy Project to feel the same way." Harfleet says."I felt that by planting something living and beautiful in that place it became positive. Essentially turning something that was bad into something that is good."

With the advent of social media, the project soon turned from a personal one into one of national and international participation.

"Queer Up North, a cultural festival in Manchester, had got hold of the project so it was starting to gain some publicity, so we did some more festivals," Harfleet continued.

"Then came a large installation at St John's Gardens in Liverpool, the site of a murder (believed to have been a result of homophobic violence in a well-known 'cruising' area for gay men). There we planted 2,000 pansies in a line from where the man first entered the park to where they eventually found his body."

Harfleet in Brussels, BelgiumHarfleet in Brussels, Belgium

"After the onset of Facebook and Twitter I was asking people for locations in the town and cities I was travelling to, so that I could go plant a pansy for them. The Project has now moved on through Europe, America, even the Middle-East," beams Harfleet.

The project has won Harfleet and his brother, a garden designer, gold medals at 2010's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and 2013's Chelsea Flower Show. Although, with most homophobic incidents taking place in highly-developed urban areas, the planting of a pansy is not always so easy.

"Sometimes it has to be anywhere I can squeeze one in," laughs Harfleet, "as long as it's in eye-line of the location.

"There was one in Graz, Austria, an incident at the Town Hall, where I was wandering around the main square looking for a spot." He recalls. "Eventually I noticed one loose cobble, took it out, planted the pansy, took a photograph, then dug up the pansy and replaced the cobble."

The Pansy Project takes gold at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (2010)The Pansy Project takes gold at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (2010)

Much like the incidents, in most cases the pansy is there and gone in a flash, falling victim to the weather, fingers or slugs.

"One of the first nearly became a full pansy bush," Harfleet recounts. "But for the most part they're gone very quickly. The focus of the work has become more about the ritual of planting the pansy, turning a location of hate into one of beauty. Capturing that strong image of resistence.

"The photograph is the thing that records that moment, the change from bad to good. Each pansy therefore becomes an echo of the person on the end of that abuse. It stops the victim internalising the incident, the project becomes a shield."

Soon after speaking with Confidential, Harfleet was back out planting early the next morning following a homophobic incident in Piccadilly (see below). Sadly, a decade on and Harfleet's Pansy Project shows no signs of slowing down.

Follow David8Blake

%26#34%3BPervert%26#34%3B, Piccadilly, Manchester %28thrown sandwich and attack%29 "Pervert" (thrown sandwich and attack), Piccadilly, Manchester, July 2013

Paul Harfleet has planted pansies in up to 130 locations across Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, so far.

He's recently collaborated with Manchester Pride and Dig The City, discussing The Pansy Project and the life of Alan Turing in Byte.

See more from Paul Harfleet and T he Pansy Project here.


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AnonymousAugust 20th 2014.

Well done Paul, a shame this has to exist but it's a beautiful thing to do.

Emma AthertonAugust 21st 2014.

Great idea. As said above it's a shame that in 2014 homophobia still exists.

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