By Olga Merino
Han Nefkens (Rotterdam, 1954) is a writer, collector, philanthropist and, above all, a man with a fighting spirit. For the past six years he has been living in Barcelona, where he channels his patronage through two foundations: ArtAids and one that carries his name and offers awards to visual artists and a grant to young writers.
On 20 November 1987, while I was working as a journalist in Mexico, I found out that I had contracted AIDS. I was 33 and the world crashed down around me. “How much longer do I have? Six months? What will I do?” Back then doctors knew very little about the illness. My brother died of AIDS.
Your latest book is called Borrowed Time (Atlas, 2008). Is that how you feel?
I was thrilled to turn 60 last month. I never thought I’d make it, never. It’s an enormous gift. We all live on borrowed time. I’m lucky that I was forewarned: I discovered it 27 years ago, and I was able to do what I wanted.
Then you contracted encephalitis.
That’s right, twelve years ago. Suddenly one day I couldn’t walk, or talk, or eat... It was a second life, a second chance. It took me two years to recover.
There is still stigma surrounding AIDS.
Yes. People feel ashamed, they don’t want others to find out, and that’s an unnecessary burden. And it’s dangerous too, because here in Spain, at least 30% of people with HIV don’t know that they are carriers.
Through ArtAids you help to raise awareness.
Every two years we organise an event aimed at breaking down the ostracism around HIV. In October we will launch an exhibition called Perfect Lovers at Fundación Suñol, featuring artworks based on the illness.
A millionaire with refined artistic tastes devotes himself to philanthropy rather than living the good life?
I’m sorry, but I am living the good life, because I do exactly what I like and what gives me pleasure. The idea that if you’re rich you go to the beach, to the Maldives, and buy a Ferrari is a huge cliché. Money is simply a magnifying glass: if you’re lost and you don’t know who you are, having money will make it even worse.
What do you get out of it?
It makes me feel accompanied, though not in the physical sense. Look, I’m a writer and I can afford to devote myself to writing without worrying about making ends meet. And it makes me happy just to know that another author can write thanks to the grant.
By giving you also receive, is that it?
Exactly. I feel privileged to have had a lot of obstacles to overcome. If everything comes easily, if you don’t need to make an effort, what do you learn? Nothing. Art cures loneliness, and it has helped me to get through some very tough times.
We could say that you’re an atypical collector.
Yes, I’m passionate about art, but I’m even more passionate about being able to show it. The 450 works in the H+F Collection (the letters are my initial and my Mexican husband Felipe’s) are displayed in various museums around the world.
Your favourite work?
That’s like asking a father to say which of his children he loves best. But I’m very proud of the work that the artist Pipilotti Rist made for Fundació Miró.
Why did you choose Barcelona?
It’s like when you fall in love with somebody: there are many reasons. I was seduced by the mix of the Mediterranean lifestyle and the Catalan identity, which makes it different. The creative atmosphere and the fact that there is life on the streets, which is something that we lack in Nordic countries. If you need to talk to somebody, you arrange to meet for lunch, not in the office.
We get criticised for that in Europe.
Yes, but they’re wrong. Very wrong.