Han Nefkens, arts activist, president of the ArtAids FoundationI am 55 years old: I never dreamt I’d make it this far twenty years ago, when I found out I was HIV-positive! I was born in Rotterdam and I live in Barcelona. I’m a writer. I live with Felipe, my partner of thirty years. Politics? Pragmatic left. God? No: everything is chance.
He has just written Borrowed Time: the story of his life and the things he has been doing with it since HIV started trying to wrestle it away from him. Day by day, Han Nefkens fights AIDS and the social stigma and exclusion that goes with it (today, in Valencia, at the national congress on AIDS). While he looks for a publisher for his biography, we talk about his vision of the world and art: he collects contemporary art works (www.hfcollection.org), and also sponsors avant-garde artists, organises workshops and has set up the ArtAids grant (www.artaids.com). And he tells me about the exhibition Mirant des de fora (our photograph shows him in front of its poster), which will take place in Barcelona in December, with the work of many artists in favour of people affected by AIDS.
How many different drugs each day?
A cocktail of six drugs, in two doses.
And how do you feel?
Fine, but they have side effects: I often feel tired, as though I had the flu.
But you are alive and active.
I’ve been lucky: as the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) built up my body’s resistance to the drug I was taking, a new drug would appear.
That’s very encouraging, isn’t it?
It is a good thing if it encourages people who are infected, but it is bad if it leads people to lower their guard.
Lower their guard in what sense?
The most powerful anti-AIDS measures are preventative ones: condoms.
Safe sex, huh?
Safe sex is very pleasurable, not a punishment! And sex is not just penetration.
How did you find out you were infected?
Through a blood test, when I was 33. You think that the movie of your life is about to start... and they tell you that you’ve reached the ending!!
And what do you do then?
Something you don’t usually do: you ask yourself what you really want to do with your life.
And what did you want?
To write and to help artists. And to live knowing that each moment is unique: some may be more enjoyable than others, but none are unimportant, every single moment is very important!
Thank you spending this moment with me.
In this extra time my life has become richer and more intense than it was before. I have learnt to pay more attention to my intuition than my reason... and I make less mistakes than I used to!
Do you distrust reason?
Your reason contains the voices of social conventions, your parents, other people... And your intuition contains your own voice.
Where has your intuition led you?
To be an arts activist. One day, I chanced upon an exhibition of works by Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist, and it shook me up! The sensuality of the colours, sounds, shapes... After spending several hours there, enthralled, I walked outside with a firm purpose...
“I want more people to see this”, I said to myself. And since then I create art collections,
promote artists, make deals with museums to exhibit their works.
What type of artists?
When is an artist good?
From that day, art is like air, water and food to me. It’s impossible to make a mistake! I know when an artist is good.
What do your artists have in common?
Good art is that which transmutes the private into public, that which makes personal experience understandable to everybody. In fact, it’s what I do with my own life: put it out there.
By talking about it?
And through social intervention: in Thailand, where it is taboo to talk about aids, I have seen children walking into an exhibition I organised around AIDS with works by Thai artists, and how this gave teachers an excuse to talk to them about the subject...
And that may have saved a life.
That’s why, if there are HIV-positive celebrities, it would be wonderful if they had the courage to declare it publicly.
To come out of the AIDS closet?
Now there is a stigma and the fear of being branded guilty of something and pushed aside at work or socially. There is nothing we fear so much as loneliness, and HIV-positive people keep quiet. This is unfortunate: it means that many people prefer not to have and AIDS test... and that favours infection. Right now, 30% of HIV-positive people are undiagnosed.
How can art help?
It helps to educate feelings, intuition. Art communicates. Nothing is more useful than art, for all its apparent uselessness. Art is fundamental. Look around you: can you imagine a world without art?
What is art for?
What is life for?
¡Touché! Answer your question.
Life has no meaning, but we can give it meaning. And that’s what art does. Art dissolves loneliness, it communicates and connects you with the whole human family. From there the ArtAids Foundation: we encourage artists to create works.
And where do their works go?
To museums that I sign agreements with. And then there is my private collection, contemporary art works that move and affect me, that I buy and loan to museums.
Can any work move you to tears?
Yes, a video by Shirin Neshat about an exiled Iranian woman who returns to Iran and is interrogated... Then there are also works that excite me (in a way that can only be compared to sexual arousal), such as the assemblages that Olafur Eliasson creates with light and water..
Are works of art also a kind of medication against death, a life preserver?
Eight years ago, HIV infected my brain and I lost the ability to read, write, talk, eat, walk... When I was at death’s door, a medical miracle saved me. But then it took me two years to relearn how to connect each thing to its name.... And then I was gripped by fear: “Would I still like the works of art in my collection... ?”
I plucked up courage and went to see them... And those works, just then, touched me like I’d never felt them before! Not only did I recognise them, they also revealed all their mystery, their inexplicable presence. And I had my certainty: “I have chosen well.” Good art! It communicated, it talked to me... that art certified that I was still me and I was still alive!