Interview FD – 3 March 2012
Text: Karin Kuijpers
Photography: Marie Cecile Thijs
Who: Han Nefkens
What: fashion and art patron, writer
Has purchased works by: Viktor & Rolf, Hussein Chalayan, Walter van Beirendonck
Awards a prize of: € 25,000 to a fashion designer
Han Nefkens was born 57 years ago without a right hand and on his left hand his fingers are too short. But he was never bullied because of that. ‘My mother acted like I could do everything. If I walked into the room with a cup, my father would say, “Careful you don't drop it”. To which mother would say, “So he drops it.”’
The only thing he cannot do is tie his shoelaces. So on his feet he has a pair of polished black leather Prada shoes with Velcro straps. The soft, suede jacket he is wearing, with normal length sleeves, is by Gucci – from the Tom Ford days. ‘Back then they had an excellent fit.’
In Hotel de l’Europe he orders coffee. ‘Of course, mister Nefkens’, they reply. He has been a regular there for twelve years. At least once a month he travels from his home in Barcelona to Amsterdam. To see his friends, to eat a prawn cocktail, and for his fashion, art and AIDS projects. With the dexterity of an accomplished challenged person he brings the cup of coffee to his mouth.
Even without his handicap he would have felt differently as a child, he says. ‘I matured at an early age, I was sensitive and had an imaginative spirit. I dreamt about faraway lands, about art, I drew clothes for stylish women using my mother as model. She always looked beautiful, Chanel chic. I could not relate to people my own age, though I did feel the strong urge to belong.’
He clearly remembers the image of being seven years old, standing in his bedroom and looking out the window. At laughing classmates playing outside. ‘I wanted so much to be out there with them, but I felt paralysed. When I finally mustered the courage to move and go downstairs, they were gone.’ As a child Nefkens already loved people, only he didn't know how to reach them. Call it loneliness, or a longing for contact. It took a long time before he felt like he lived and belonged on this planet.
He chooses his words carefully, and often composes literary sentences. It is the writer in Nefkens, who wrote three books. Bloedverwanten (Blood brothers) about his younger brother who died of AIDS at the age of 31, his collected columns Twee lege stoelen (Two empty chairs) and De gevlogen vogel (The flown bird) about his battle with encephalitis in 2001. Writing feels like a necessity. In Barcelona he writes every day. First he works out with his personal trainer, followed by breakfast and then he writes. ‘Grief is senseless, but by writing about it I make sense of it. At least, that's how it feels.’
For someone who has known the darker sides of life, he looks quite sprightly. ‘That's because I am doing well’, he says with an enigmatic grin. ‘I am in the prime of my life.’
Nefkens is a busy man. After Amsterdam he is off to the art fair in Madrid, then he goes to Thailand for the opening of an AIDS exhibition and where he will be a willing victim for the media. ‘The mere fact that they are talking about HIV and AIDS in this country is a big deal. It is important for people to know that they have to be careful and that they must get tested. I am a strong supporter of that.’
In 1987 Nefkens, who was a radio correspondent in Mexico at the time, was plagued by chronic coughing fits. ‘I thought it was caused by the air pollution, but the doctor there said that I should get tested for HIV. I thought, “what an idiot, probably only because I am gay”. But he tested positive. ”I didn't even know what the word meant.” With the result of a second test in America, the term ‘positive’ became irrevocable. ‘Many young people were dying in those days. I was 33 and far too young to die. After a few months I learned to accept it and became a Buddy. That was my way of finding out how I could share things with people. Up until then all I did was run around for my job as a correspondent. But where to? When I became infected, I learned that I shouldn't put anything off.’ He still subscribes to that attitude. But: ‘Now we are talking about projects in 2014 and 2015. Before I never dared to think that far ahead.’
Nefkens receives an income from the family fortune that allows him to lead a free life. ‘Through my bosom buddy Frank Ligtvoet, a former cultural attaché in New York, I learned about contemporary art. Before that I was more interested in classical art. Frank took me along to galleries in New York and Paris, and taught me how to see and understand.’
The video work of Pipilotti Rist in 1999 was the turning point. ‘She had transformed a hall into a home and in the rooms she had video projections that almost let you feel the rain on your skin or smell the flowers. I felt a restrained power in them, which reminded me of that longing I had for people when was a child. I came out of there two hours later and thought: “I want to be a part of this world.”’
Through a friend in the art world large museums were informed that he was interested in joint projects. ‘Nobody knew who I was and nobody responded, except for Sjarel Ex, who was the director of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht at the time. Apparently he was a fan of Pipilotti Rist as well. It was the first work I bought and it went straight to the Centraal Museum.’ Art and fashion came together when he saw the work of Viktor & Rolf. ‘I always loved fashion. Fashion is an exciting way of seeing how we present ourselves in this world. How you want people to see you. Are you a punk or more a pearl necklace type?’
Up until that time the art world hardly considered fashion an art form. Nefkens changed all that by buying and commissioning works by Viktor & Rolf, Hussein Chalayan and Walter van Beirendonck. ‘I want to explore that fine line between fashion and art. I am convinced that many designers have an unrealised dream in the back of their mind. I want to make it possible for them to realise their fantasies.’
In 2001 an infection in his brain brought an abrupt end to his new world. ‘The worst time of my life. From one day to the next I could not talk, eat or walk anymore. I was demented. My eyes rolled in their sockets, I was unstable and aggressive. It is unbelievably difficult when you can't put a key in a keyhole because your hand is shaking too much. So you can't even go outside. It was horrible for me, as well as for my partner Felipe. He had no idea whether this was a temporary condition or a permanent one.’
For months Nefkens remained in the AMC (University Medical Centre) in Amsterdam. After that came a period of physiotherapy, speech and reading lessons. ‘I did write short pieces during that time, but I could not read them. Many times I thought, “I am back”, only to find out I wasn't there yet. Not until 2004 did I completely recover. A more powerful version of Han Nefkens than ever before. I was a real struggle for me to learn all the everyday things all over again. But that persistence never went away and now it manifests itself in all the things I undertake. However, my balance is not so great anymore and I forget things now and again, but that happens anyway to people over 57.’
Nefkens has been in a relationship for 33 years with Felipe, a furnisher restorer from Mexico. How he keeps the relationship alive? He grins. ‘Well, you mustn't take yourself too seriously and respect people for who they are. Felipe is quiet and caring. I still feel the love. We are doing well together, which wasn't always the case during my recovery. Together we became stronger.’
Today Nefkens is busier than ever with his art and AIDS projects. In the beginning he mostly bought existing art: a silver-plated dress by Viktor & Rolf, a hat by Hussein Chalayan with LED lighting. Nowadays he only commissions works. ‘It is much more exciting than buying a piece off the wall, because I am more involved in it.’ He is thrilled about the fact that museums are increasingly putting together exhibitions about fashion and fashion designers. ‘But I go beyond exhibiting them; I want to let a designer create something new, something that doesn't exist yet.’
Nefkens does not buy art as an investment, but to share it. ‘Sharing is an antidote to loneliness’, he feels. ‘As a little boy I loved people, only I could not reach them. Thanks to fashion and art, now I can. I loan the works I buy to museums and when I die they become part of their permanent collection.’ His only condition is that museums are required to display the Nefkens collection once every five years.
Prize for designers
In 2005 Nefkens instituted the H+F Fashion Award, a biannual international prize of
€ 25,000 to give fashion designers the opportunity of realising difficult projects. This year the prize was awarded to the young Korean designer Regina Pyo. She is making a presentation that will be shown in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen next September. ‘We work with scouts all over the world. This time we wanted to emphasize non-western designers. I thoroughly enjoy to follow the process, the astonishment and joy of the winner who can hardly believe that she can make a free project, the discussions we have during the creative process and then ultimately the exhibition where all those ideas have become tangible.’
These last years, Nefkens is better known as a patron of the arts. ‘For me that was more difficult than coming out of the closet as a homosexual or being HIV-positive. There is a conceited air to 'patron of the arts'. People with money should be discreet. But Sjarel Ex thought that I should be an example to other private sponsors. And it works.’
He loves to give things away. Each year he sends boxes of clothes he hardly wore to his friends. Those boxes are known as the Nef-Nef collection. He laughs: ‘I am happy that others enjoy them more than I did.’
Born 1954 in Rotterdam.
Studied journalism in France and the United States.
Work From 1978 to 1989 Nefkens is a radio correspondent in Mexico, where in 1987 he is given the news that he is HIV-positive. In 1995 he published his first book, Bloedverwanten (Blood brothers), and after that he wrote, among other things, De gevlogen vogel (Borrowed Time), about his recovery from his bout with encephalitis.
Art collection The art works that he has acquired since 2001 are part of the H+F Collection; the Award he instituted in 2005 bears the same name.
For his work as patron of the arts Nefkens received the Zilveren Anjer (Silver Carnation) in 2011.