To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Paul Harfleet ‘The Pansy Project’ – Artist, Guerrilla Gardener
by Bryon Fear
In a single day in 2005, conceptual artist Paul Harfleet suffered three incidents of homophobic abuse on the streets of Manchester, UK. They were all verbal. “I think it’s time we went gay bashing again!” called out a builder on Grosvenor Street, taunting Paul as he passed by. As anyone who has suffered verbal or physical abuse at the hands of others will recognise, these incidents leave their mark; for some, physical scars remind us of these incidents, for others these scars are hidden, marking our psyche, wounds that often take longer to heal because they become infected, and that infection is fuelled by fear. For Paul Harfleet, the homophobia he suffered that day became the catalyst for a brilliantly simple, yet powerful and affecting conceptual art piece: ‘The Pansy Project’.
‘The Pansy Project’ is a site specific concept. Paul plants pansies at the sites where homophobic hate crimes have taken place (or the nearest location that contains soil), then he photographs the flower, and posts the image to his website with a title that is also specific to the incident. The first image in the gallery is titled: “I think it’s time we went gay bashing again!”, Grosvenor Street, Manchester. The pansies that mark the sites of murder, such as the pansy on London’s Southbank where David Morley was attacked and killed, are simply named after the victim.
For me, this remarkable project works on so many levels. Paul chose the pansy as his medium for several reasons. Its name, Pansy, is not only a derogatory slang term for an effeminate man, but its etymology stems from the french penser – ‘to think’ – because pansy flower heads naturally bow slightly, as if in contemplation, or perhaps mourning. The fragility of these delicate flowers, placed into the harsh urban landscapes where these attacks took place, not only create a wonderfully visual juxtaposition but are a reminder that society has a responsibility to protect those at risk from hate crime.
Importantly, the project is not just about memorialising the hate crimes but changing the resonance of memory. Paul often plants the pansies with the victims themselves who through the action of putting the flowers into the landscape where they were attacked, begins a process of altering the negative associations of that ‘site’ to something more positive. In 2007, my partner and I were victims of a particularly violent attack five minutes from his home in Tottenham Hale. When the two thugs fled the scene, my boyfriend was left unconscious, lying face down in the middle of the road, and I at the roadside with a snapped jaw from the repeated kicks to the face I had been subjected to. In the years that followed, the scars to my psyche proved far greater than the broken jaw that was healed within the month. Every time we had to walk down that road I was reminded of the violence and the fear that had been engendered there, it was like an old wound that would repeatedly split open and refuse to heal. I think that perhaps if I had known about the ‘Pansy Project’ then, our own flowers at the roadside would have helped close those wounds quicker and helped remove the negative associations with that location which, to this day, still remain.
The ‘Pansy Project’ is an act of queer defiance, it memorialises and commemorates but most importantly, by writing new memories and placing beauty into the scars of our personal and physical landscapes it helps to heal. Paul Harfleet has given the LGBT community a beautiful and important gift and for this reason he is one of my LGBT heroes.