Why The Arts Matter: The Pansy Project

Campaigning artist Paul Harfleet plants seeds of hope in Belfast as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival

The idea is disarmingly simple – planting a pansy at the site of an incident of homophobic abuse or aggression. But what started as a small 'gesture of quiet resistance’ for artist and campaigner Paul Harfleet has since grown into an award-winning international project.

Harfleet began The Pansy Project five years ago as a personal reaction to the verbal abuse many gay people face as a ‘normal’ part of life. He became interested in how ‘your personal experience or memory of a location alters your idea of that place’. Inspired by the roadside floral memorials left at the scenes of road accidents, Harfleet wanted to do something more ‘low key’.

He decided on planting a flower as a fitting answer to homophobic abuse – a temporary, unmarked expression of hope. Pansies seemed a natural choice given the word’s use as a term of insult, coined in the Victorian era to describe ‘an effeminate, overly thoughtful man’.

Initially planting pansies around Manchester, Harfleet photographed each planting, naming it after the location and the abuse experienced at that site and displaying the photographs on his blog. The project quickly developed, with Harfleet planting pansies dedicated to the abuse experienced by others and creating installations at festivals and events.

Since then he has used social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with thousands of followers in many countries and to generate suggestions of locations for plantings. The project is now as much about the cataloguing of the plantings as about the ritual of planting a pansy itself. Harfleet aims to generate online discussion and now reposts images of plantings taken by others who have been inspired by him.

Now The Pansy Project has been invited to Belfast by this year’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival, and Harfleet is asking, via his blog, for suggestions about locations to plant pansies in the city. As well as planting pansies in Belfast, Harfleet will be handing out seeds to passers-by in the city centre on Saturday, November 13.

Harfleet admits that some might see the action of planting a flower in response to the problem of homophobic crime as ‘a bit ridiculous and not an efficient way of tackling the issue'. The success of the project surely proves otherwise.

Homophobic prejudice and violence can cause loss of confidence, fear and anxiety and affect people’s emotional and mental health. The Pansy Project allows what is a serious and weighty subject to be handled in a light way, and the juxtaposition of a beautiful flower with a hate-filled insult such as ‘Fags!’ or ‘I think it’s time we went gay bashing again!’ is certainly arresting.

One of the most moving aspects of the art project is the planting of pansies dedicated to people murdered in homophobic attacks. Michael Causer was beaten to death in Liverpool in 2008. Harfleet contacted the Causer family to ask their permission to plant a single pansy in Causer’s name. ‘They kindly agreed and wanted to witness the planting. It was a solemn, low key and moving experience which I shall never forget,’ recalls Harfleet.

The Pansy Project’s visit to Northern Ireland links in with the new joint campaign ENOUGH, from the Rainbow Project and Unite Against Hate, whose aim is to raise awareness of homophobic abuse and persuade more people to report these crimes.

In a society like Northern Ireland, where prominent politicians find it acceptable to call homosexuality an ‘abomination’ on the radio, and where many gay people unsurprisingly still don’t feel able to come out, The Pansy Project undoubtedly has an important role to play in fighting discrimination.

Harriet Long, LGBT advocacy worker with the Rainbow Project, explains why the campaign is so important: ‘An individual attack is an attack on the whole of the gay community and creates a fear which has repercussions for wider society. People who report crime are under pressure, may not be out to their family and friends and are unsure what to expect from the police. Northern Ireland is catching up in lots of ways with its understanding of diversity, but people just don’t hear about the problem of homophobia.'

The ENOUGH campaign allows people who have experienced abuse or bullying to share their stories in confidence, via a postcard or online. The Rainbow Project can provide support such as counselling and, as they have a good relationship with the PSNI, they can report incidents on behalf of individuals.

In our era of swinging cuts to arts funding, The Pansy Project is a timely reminder of the potential positive benefits that the arts can offer to individual expression and society as a whole. Harfleet is accepting suggestions of locations for plantings in Northern Ireland via his blog http://thepansyproject.blogspot.com/. You can report any homophobic abuse to the ENOUGH campaign at www.uniteagainsthate.org.uk.

Sign up for the I Value the Arts NI campaign.