Benefactor and art activist Han Nefkens talks multi-disciplinarity, Italian jackets and fashion activism.
For the finale of our three-part series, Art Radar catches up with Han Nefkens: writer, art activist, collector, long-time patron of the arts and Founder of the unique Han Nefkens Fashion on the Edge initiative.
ABOUT HAN NEFKENS
Han Nefkens (b. 1954, Rotterdam) is one of the biggest patrons of contemporary art in the Netherlands. He buys art, loans it long-term to museums, and supports artists by sponsoring numerous awards and commissions. Nefkens has been described as a “true patron of the arts” due to his generosity. He once said in an interview, commenting on the satisfaction gained from donating art to museums: ‘I always compare [donating art to museums] with reading a good book and then wanting to pass it on to someone else. It is satisfying when others can enjoy art that you value.’
Apart from merely collecting and donating art, Nefkens is considered an art activist in that he regularly initiates projects and actively develops works together with artists and museums. One of his most successful initiatives is ArtAids, an organisation active in Thailand and Spain. ArtAids not only sponsors artists who make art about the AIDS stigma, but also supports scientific and medical research.
'THE FUTURE OF FASHION IS NOW'
In 2006, together with fashion expert José Teunissen, Nefkens set up the unique initiative Han Nefkens Fashion on the Edge in collaboration with the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The initiative focuses on commissioning and investing in innovative works that defy traditional genres.Nefkens has worked extensively with distinguished artists Viktor & Rolf and Hussein Chalayan, while the Han Nefkens Fashion Award is a biennial prize awarded to a designer who works at the cutting edge of fashion and art.
The exhibition 'The Future of Fashion is Now', which we covered in the first part of this series, is the initiative’s latest project. Featuring dresses that shoot laser beams; jackets that recharge mobile phones; traditional Chinese costumes made from woven toilet paper and lace grown from the roots of strawberries, the exhibition combines fashion, art and technology with a strong focus on sustainability.
Central to the exhibition are six specially commissioned works by six designers from around the world, including the Digest Design Workshop from China and D&K from Australia. Art Radar talks to Han Nefkens about the commissioning process, the increasing multi-disciplinarity of the art world, and how art and fashion can change the world.
FASHION BORDERING ON ART
You have done amazing work in the arts and you are well known for that. Could you tell us how you became interested in fashion as well? What kinds of fashion are you most interested in?
I became interested in fashion when I saw that fashion can be more than just clothes – when I realised that some fashion designers are able to transmit an idea or story through their designs, just as artists do. That’s why I am most interested in fashion that lies on the border between fashion and art. Fashion that tells a story.
Fashion that borders on visual art – could you elaborate?
Nowadays everything is so multi-disciplinary. Everybody is aware of what’s going on in the art world, in the fashion world, in philosophy, in technology, etc. It becomes natural that once you become interested in one discipline, you automatically become acquainted with other disciplines as well. It’s all part of this multi-disciplinary move. This is how I discovered that with some designers, fashion could come very close to art.
For example, when you look at the exhibition “The Future of Fashion is Now”, so many of the designs are multi-disciplinary in the sense that their concepts relate to a diverse range of issues: the environment, sustainability, medical research, technology. There was this incredible diversity in the exhibition – you could see artists referencing the way Japanese workers dressed 100 years ago, and right next to it you could see a dress which could recharge your mobile phone!
We have this richness and diversity because young designers nowadays are inspired by their direct environment – by what’s going in the rest of the world, which they come to know through the media. And they are also inspired by history. So we have everything now.
CURATING THE FUTURE OF FASHION
Tell us more about “The Future of Fashion is Now”. How did the project come about?
The story goes a little bit like this. Since we started Han Nefkens Fashion on the Edge, we discovered that there were a lot of young designers who looked at the fashion industry in a very different way. And we became curious to know what was going on with young designers around the world, especially in non-Western countries.
So we started a system of scouts to help us look for talent. We contacted fashion experts all over the world, in Asia, in the Arab world, in Africa. These scouts are either designers or curators or journalists – people who are considered experts in the field of fashion. And we asked each of these experts to send us three candidates for the exhibition.
We ended up with thirty exciting candidates from all over the world. I want you to imagine my pleasure when I received the images – through email or WeTransfer or whatever – which enabled me to see what was happening in Laos, in Australia, in Peru, in Lithuania, and so on. It was so enriching and fun to look at what’s going on in the world without even leaving my house! From the thirty candidates we shortlisted ten, and then an international jury chose the six designers that we ultimately gave the commission to.
What were some of the most enjoyable moments from the project? And the most challenging?
I would say that the most enjoyable thing about the project was how social media enabled everybody to keep in contact with each other. All the designers who were working on the exhibition were connected with each other through social media. They shared their work and progress with each other and everyone else, so that people who were interested in art and fashion could get updates on what they were doing.
This enabled the project to develop into something beyond an exhibition. It became a platform for both designers and people interested in fashion to communicate with each other about what they were doing. This was the most rewarding aspect of the project for me – the experience of being in touch with the designers, of seeing what’s going on, of witnessing their creative process. And of course, once the exhibition itself was put in place, it was amazing to finally meet everyone in person.
I don’t have a feeling that we bumped into a lot of challenges, actually. Perhaps the choosing part was challenging, but somehow we always came to a unanimous decision. There were no difficult, heated discussions. The jury always saw straightaway who would be suitable for a commission.
DESIGNERS VERSUS ARTISTS
What is the distinguishing quality that separates an artist-designer from a fashion designer?
Do you see fashion designers as artists?
Yes, but not all of them. Some are. I definitely consider all the designers I work with as artists and I constantly refer to them as ‘artists’ instead of ‘designers’. You will understand why if you look at our exhibition or the works displayed on my website. The works and designs are art installations. We are not talking about a nice little dress.
I think it’s a combination of curiosity, investigation and imagination. They need to have the curiosity to go beyond what they know. They need to have a desire to tell a story and they need to have a desire to investigate. Some investigate a certain social setting. Others investigate a material: whether it’s sustainable, whether it’s been used in the past, etc. What they all have is a motivation to go further, to question, to explore and then to create.
Are there any Asian artist-designers that we should watch out for in 2015?
Plenty! We have a lot of Asian artists in our exhibition and their work is among the best. I was really pleasantly surprised by the work coming from China, for example, from Dooling Jiang.
Here are some others to look out for: Shilpa Chavan from India, Shao Yen Chen from Taiwan, Rejina Pyo and Eunjeong Jeon from Korea, Kunihiko Moringa and the duo comprising Hokuto Katsui and Nao Yagi from Japan, and finally Zhang Da and Ying Gao from China.
Your first fashion purchase as a collector were condom dresses at an AIDS conference in Bangkok. The concept makes quite a statement and falls into the category of fashion activism. Could you tell us a bit more about the dresses? Where are they now?
The condom dresses are still at the same museum that I sent them to after I bought them. They were by the Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini, and they were displayed at an international AIDS conference. I was an art collector at the time and had never been involved in fashion, but those dresses appealed to me because they were so different from anything I’ve ever seen before.
Of course, the condom is an ephemeral material and it shrivels away. I have the impression that they are not in a very good state now! Which is okay, because when a material changes, it marks the beginning of a new phase or journey for the artwork.
You once said in an interview that art does contribute to a better world. Can fashion do the same thing?
Yes, obviously. When you look at the exhibition you will see that the designers are precisely investigating how they – how we can all – contribute to a better world. One designer’s work is related to medical research – a quest to lighten the burden of people with cancer! These people are certainly not aiming to make a beautiful garment. They are aiming to make a better environment, a better future, a better world. I must say it is extremely encouraging.
What about the stigma of luxury and commercialism associated with the fashion industry?
I think that’s changing, even with consumers, and even in Asia. I am getting the feeling that the more sophisticated consumers are looking beyond the brand names. They desire something more, a conscience and awareness perhaps, and because of that I feel that the fashion world is moving towards something better.
Finally, in the style of fashion magazines, allow me to ask: what are your favourite staples in your wardrobe these days?
I like to wear jackets and suits that have this sharp design. Broad shoulders, trimmed middle, open-breasted. Quite Italian, I think. And I like them to be quite fitted. And then I always wear those with jeans, and lately with all sorts of different sneakers, preferably red ones.