Han Nefkens, the founder of ArtAids, an organisation set up to raise awareness about HIV, interviewed in the office of the Fundació Suñol where the Perfect Lovers exhibition is currently on show.
He was 33 and working as a radio journalist in Mexico when he was told he was HIV positive. Life expectancy? Between one and two years. He plummeted to the depths of despair, but resurfaced and now, 27 years later, after a life story that would make a good novel, he is still with us. Luck, determination and antiretrovirals did the rest. This Monday was World AIDS Day and Han Nefkens (born in Rotterdam, 1954) was working on the exhibition entitled Perfect Lovers. Art in the time of AIDS, which brings together works on the subject. The exhibition runs until 24 January and is a joint project by the foundation that Nefkens established in 2006, ArtAids, and Fundació Suñol.
You don’t like art being described as therapeutic.
When you say the word ‘therapeutic’ it makes me think of children with paintbrushes or people with Alzheimer’s making origami figures. Life is therapeutic and so is art.
But art transformed you.
That’s true. When you look at a work of art you are looking through the artist’s eyes. This stirs something inside you, changes your world and changes your focus.
Journalist, patron, art collector, writer, philanthropist… what’s left?
I’ve reached a point where it is all the same to me. A while ago somebody told me – and I think this is beautiful – that I could connect with anybody, people from absolute geographical and ideological opposites, and find common ground.
So you are a mixer?
Yes! That’s good! I’m a ‘mixer’ of humanity.
You also like to be called an ‘activist’.
That means fighting for something you believe in. I’m an activist for life, though I don’t have any need to control where it’s going. You just have to let it run.
Did you ever think you would reach 60?
Can you remember the day you were told you were HIV positive?
Perfectly. It was 17 November 1987, seven o’clock in the evening, in Mexico. They gave me a slip of paper which said: ‘HIV Test – Positive’. The funny thing was that, my first reaction was to think ‘positive’ – that’s good! It could be something good, constructive… just for a fleeting second.
Was it difficult to take this news on board?
Very difficult. I never thought that it would happen to me, contracting AIDS. Never. What’s more, in Mexico, at that time, there was no treatment. I had to go to the United States, but even there they said I only had a year left.
So then you decided, with what was left of your life, to do what you really wanted to do.
This really sharpened my attitude to life. I had an urgent need, I was in a hurry… If I had to go, I wasn’t going to do things I didn’t want to! I turned to art.
Why contemporary art and not another discipline such as music or even literature which relates so closely to your work as a writer?
That’s a very good question because now I can answer it. Before I couldn’t. It came from something very deep inside: act first and then think about it. I think I launched myself into contemporary art because I loved it. I don’t know if I’m passionate about art because it brings me pleasure or vice versa and I didn’t think about whether it was right for me, just like when you fall in love.
But your illness got worse.
The virus is very clever and it builds up resistance to medication. I had played my cards one at a time until they were all gone. There was nothing else I could do. And then miraculously – life is just a series of fortuitous events, don’t forget – new drugs came out.
From one miracle to the next.
It feels like you’ve been given extra time in your own personal football match. In fact, every day that any of us lives is a gift. But most people don’t realise that.
But you had that feeling of ‘extra time’ at a very young age. Do you think without this insight your life would not have been so full?
It would have been completely different! I would have lived life at an ordinary speed, I don’t know if it would have been more dreary or more interesting, life as a journalist. But the intensity that I feel now of simply being alive – that certainly wouldn’t have been the case.
You have lost a lot of friends on the way as well as a brother.
I feel a great responsibility for all those people who were given the same bad news as me and fought like I have fought but who did not have my luck. What I do, I do in their name.
There are still people who are ashamed to publicly acknowledge that they are HIV positive.
Do you know why? Because men and women in the public eye don’t admit it. I’m sure that if politicians, artists, leading people in their fields were to simply say “I’m HIV positive and I’m fighting it, but I just get on with my day-to-day life and take my drugs and it’s business as usual”, people would start to understand what it’s like.
To make it normal.
Why can I say I have got motor neurone disease, high cholesterol or diabetes but I can’t say I’ve got HIV? I just want it recognised.
Have you been rejected?
That was the most extraordinary thing: when you come out with it publicly you think you will be rejected. But it has never happened to me!
You lend works of art from your collection to museums all around the world. That’s unusually generous.
I started collecting art in 1999. But I always knew that I didn’t want to acquire works of art just to hang them in the dining room. I wanted other people to be able to enjoy what had moved me. The first work I bought went straight to a museum without ever coming to my house.
It’s good to be able to count on a philanthropist millionaire, but shouldn’t there be public responsibility too?
There was a time when the public sector, including in the Netherlands, took care of everything. And back in the 16th and 17th centuries there were patrons. I’m sure that the future lies in the cooperation of the public sector – I know that it has limitations – with the private sector.
No Ferraris, no yachts?
What for? You can’t put a price on the amount of happiness I have got from my work in the last 15 years. The joy you get from sharing emotions you don’t get from a Ferrari.
Of the works of art you have at home, which would you not sell at any price?
A photo by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. It’s a photo of a funeral procession on a beach. Men in black carrying someone wrapped in white. It’s really sought after. Every time it goes away for an exhibition … uh, it’s really painful. I just want it to come back home! Like a mother when her son goes off to sea.
You fell in love with Barcelona because ‘the streets are full of life’.
What a wonderful life! People are not shut up in their houses, I love Catalan food and their rituals fascinate me. They take their time over their food. I can’t understand why anybody would think that Catalonia is not a nation. And I also don’t understand why there should be structures that try to prevent people speaking their own language. It’s insulting, inept and unconstructive.
And this city also has Dr Clotet. Your previous doctor was Joep Lange, the AIDS specialist who died in the airliner shot down over Ukraine.
That tragedy broke my heart again. He was the man who saved my life, we were close friends. We spoke every day. They were a really enthusiastic couple! It was the first time they weren’t travelling tourist class. She [Jacqueline van Tongeren, the partner of Joep Lange] sent me a text before they took off: “I’ve got to go now, we’re leaving.” I never saw them again. It was horrible but I didn’t feel angry with life, just enormous sadness. Life is never what you expect. And now I entrust my hopes to Dr Clotet.
The letter F in your H+F Collection corresponds to Felipe, your Mexican partner. You have been together for 36 years. Congratulations!
Another miracle. He’s the best man in the world, I’ve been so lucky. He’s a furniture restorer, very gentle, genuine and above all sincere. He’s always just himself, whatever the situation.
HIV rates have been rising in Catalonia over the last five years. What could you say to people so that they don’t let their guard down?
I could tell them to use a condom but they already know that and, what’s more, they wouldn’t listen to me. When you are 20 it’s very difficult to control your impulses. But I would tell them to take the test every three months because that’s the only way you will avoid infecting other people and get treatment before it’s too late.
‘LOVERS’, AIDS AND NO EXPECTATIONS
Han Nefkens studied journalism in France and the United States and soon learned that art had the power to cure. At the exhibition, walking between the photos and flowers – “just like any good Dutchman it makes me feel at home” – Nefkens says that he will feel satisfied if “those coming through the door to see Perfect Lovers take away an understanding that AIDS is just another medical diagnosis”.
After surviving the stigma of being HIV positive, a few years ago Nefkens contracted encephalitis. “It could have left me in a wheelchair or even killed me. I was like a two-year-old child, I couldn’t think, I was out of it. I had to learn how to speak again, how to eat. Emotionally I was all over the place. But I came through it! And I had been given another fantastic opportunity.”
Some of his books – Borrowed Time and Blood Brothers – express the same message: “What you think life will be has nothing to do with reality. That’s why people become so disappointed”. So how does he expect to live the rest of his life? “I don’t expect anything, but I’m open to everything”.