Would he have also become a patron without HIV? Han Nefkens carefully considers the question over a plate of pumpkin risotto.
Text: Rinskje Koelewijn, Photography: Bob van der Vlist
Only seven of the hundreds of works of art Han Nefkens (57) has purchased or commissioned over the past ten years are displayed at his home in Barcelona where he lives with his Mexican partner Felipe. He has placed the rest of his collection on loan with museums with the agreement that they will be able to keep his work upon his death. He visits some of these museums from time to time to view his own acquisitions. Han Nefkens is called a patron because he supports and gives to the arts. Han Nefkens is also faced with the constant reality of death. He has been HIV positive for twenty-five years now and the effects of the virus almost killed him once back in 2001. He was unable to walk, eat or talk. His entire vocabulary was erased from his mind. It must have been horrific for an author with three novels to his name. After he recovered, he wrote that during that period a word could have just as easily been something you use to eat soup. What would have happened if Han Nefkens (57) had not
been HIV positive? Would he have still become a patron? You’ve got to have nerve to ask that question. But Han finds it neither insulting nor hurtful. He gives the question his careful consideration. We are seated at a table in De Harmonie restaurant in Rotterdam, located near the museum park. Han has a trimmed grey beard and is wearing a black blazer, white shirt and jeans. He speaks softly and deliberately – as if he is removing each word from a safe. His name is emblazoned on the front of the the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum around the corner. The museum is featuring an exhibition about him and his patronage. ‘I just dropped by the museum and thought I was looking in a mammoth mirror.’ A film of Han speaking about his life in the same calm tone is being shown on a large screen in the museum as part of the exhibition. He purchased his first work of art ten years ago, a year after he had decided to start collecting art. ‘I was not really that interested in contemporary art before that. It was not until a friend took me to an exhibition in SoHo, New York that I fell in love with it.’ His first acquisition was a room-filling video installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. It is now on display at the Fundació Joan Miro museum in Spain.
He continued buying art for five years. ‘Pre-existing, ready-to-display works.’ He then took it to the next level: ‘Facilitating the birth of art. Enabling the creation of new life.’ Since that point he has also been commissioning artists to produce new pieces. They are sometimes huge works of art. The same Pipilotti Rist installed a gigantic safety net in Boijmans Van Beuningen. Museum visitors can lie in it and watch video presentations being shown on the ceiling. He provides the funding and does not want anything in return. The only condition is that the works of art be placed on public display at least once every five years. ‘I do not collect for the warehouse.’ The second major decision he made was that he wanted to share his art with others. But how do you go about doing that? He wrote a letter to all the museum directors in the Netherlands saying that he was able to buy more art and was keen on contemporary art, photography, video art and installations. He asked whether the directors were interested in joining forces with him to set up some kind of project. The answer was no. ‘Nobody responded.’ And why would they? No one in the art world had ever heard of Han Nefkens. He was not an artist, not an art historian and, at that time, not even an art collector. ‘I don’t think they knew how to react to the proposal.’ One director did, however, respond to his proposal. It was Sjarel Ex, who at that time was director of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and is now director of Boijmans Van Beuningen. An entire wing of the museum in Rotterdam is now devoted to works from the H+F Collection, which has been named after Han and his partner Felipe. He and the museum jointly manage the H+F Mecenaat that conceives and finances art projects. He has set up a scholarship fund for Spanish-language writers and talented curators. Through ArtAids, Nefkens presents awards to artists who have created works inspired by AIDS. He commissioned the artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset to create a work that draws its inspiration from AIDS for the upcoming ArtAids exhibition. They have created a sculpture depicting the wine god Bacchus with a drip in his arm. Han Nefkens has in the meantime inconspicuously cut the oxtail on his plate into bite-sized pieces. One arm and the fingers on his other hand have been underdeveloped since birth. ‘When I was a child, it bothered me that I was physically different from other people. I didn’t sense that I fit in and felt very lonely.’ To make matters worse, he did not excel at school. ‘I was held back so many times. I couldn’t concentrate and was constantly daydreaming. My father thought I was not applying myself and put it down to laziness.’ Nefkens decided on his own to move from Rotterdam to The Hague to live with an aunt because there was a Montessori school there. ‘I thought I would do better at a non-traditional school.’ He earned his high school diploma and then went on to study in America and Mexico. But the sense of laziness and loneliness remained. ‘I recognised that feeling in art. It is the emotion that is depicted in everything I collect. The works all have something detached about them. A photograph of a half-full bathtub, an image of a meal that has just been touched, an empty street with stoplights. As if the people have just walked away for a while.‘ His father, who is now 92, attended the ceremony last Thursday when Han Nefkens was presented with a Silver Carnation from Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It is an accolade from the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund for people who are dedicated to art. Nefkens received the distinction for his work as a patron. ‘Being a patron is about more than just money. While the money is necessary, you’ve also got to have ideas, perseverance and the will to work in partnership.’ While he prefers to call himself an ‘art activist’, he has learned to live with the term patron. ‘You associate it with rich bastards who dole out their money. A lethargic old man.’ Museum director Sjarel Ex thought he should give up his anonymity and be upfront about being a wealthy man who invests in art. He really did not have any other option with the text in big letters on the front of the museum and the exhibition booklet’s cover that reads: Han Nefkens. A decade as a patron.
You would expect him at this point to give a high-and-mighty speech about how important it is for wealthy individuals to invest in art, certainly during an era of government spending cuts. But he doesn’t. ‘I give and share because it makes me feel good. Scientific research has shown that a pleasurable substance is produced in the brain when you give. Sharing is the antidote to loneliness.’
How did he get all his money? Han Nefkens does not see it as an inappropriate question. The answer is: from his father. He is an architect and property developer. He first worked for many years in Rotterdam and is now involved in the construction of the Piet Hein Building in the IJ area of Amsterdam. His father began covering Han’s living expenses when Han was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987. Han Nefkens was living in Mexico at the time. He had studied creative writing there and met his current partner Felipe, they were both 24. Han was working as a radio correspondent for the VARA, VPRO and IKON broadcasting companies. He had a case of bronchitis that just did not go away. It turned out to be caused by the HIV infection. ‘I could no longer work. And there was also no way to stay in Mexico because I could not receive treatment there. So I went to America. That’s when my father said he would help me.’ His mother had already died of cancer many years before at the age of 47. Han, who is the eldest of five children, was sixteen at the time of his mother’s death. Anyone who contracted HIV in the 1980s usually went on to develop AIDS and die. ‘It was a death sentence.’ His younger brother, who was also HIV positive, died within a few months. Han Nefkens has now been living with HIV for 25 years. The antiretrovirals often make him tired and nauseous. But anything is better than death. He almost did not make it in 2001 when the virus caused an infection in his brain. It took him two years to re-learn how to walk, eat and talk. ‘If I rediscovered a word, I would immediately remember it in every language I had ever learned – English, Spanish and Catalan.’ He wrote the book De gevlogen vogel
(The Bird Has Flown) about his return from what he calls ‘an incredible journey’. The book is comprised of short column-style pieces about the course of his illness. One nurse said to the other: ‘What are you supposed to say to someone who has been lying in bed for weeks and has not said a word?’ The other: ‘Oh, I just jabber away about anything and nothing, it’s all the same to him.’ His father has converted the monthly allowance into a financial plan whereby all the children receive a share of the interest earned on the family capital that Nefken’s father manages. It is not difficult to guess who set the example when it comes to giving: ‘It seems the older I get, the more like him I become. He’s always working on a project. Impassioned. Focussed on others.’ He is also unselfish because his father is not that crazy about his son’s preferences. ‘He loves sixteenth century art and has very little affinity with contemporary art. Early on he thought it was a pity that I invested in it. It is to his credit that he has always let me do what felt right to me.’ Once we have left the restaurant and are on our way to the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum, he goes back to the question whether he would have become a patron if he was not HIV positive. ‘The big advantage to HIV is that it releases you from the illusion that your life will last forever.’ Just before he is standing eye to eye with the video screen showing a film of him speaking, he is still thinking about his answer. He pauses for a moment in the courtyard. He commissioned the black-and-white floor fresco. He funded artist Olaf Nicolai’s creation of the ‘football cage’, a steel construction with mirrors inside. When you stand in it, you feel like you are a footballer in a stadium. ‘Would I have appreciated the value of sharing without HIV?’ He doesn’t think so. ‘I realise the relativity of possession. You can’t take anything with you. The art I buy does not belong to me. I look after it. I do not have to give up anything, because I do not have
anything.’ He can live on peacefully because his inheritance has already been distributed.
Born: Rotterdam, 1954
Civil status: Has been living with Felipe for 32 years
Favourite book: Joan Didion, The book of common prayer
Favourite film: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall
Favourite work of art: ‘An impossible question. Oh well, I’ll give it a shot: the Notion Motion by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.‘ The installation was commissioned by H+F Mecenaat in 2005 for the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam
Favourite food: Arroz negro (black rice)
First job: English teacher in Mexico
Indispensable item: Earplugs ‘Otherwise I can’t sleep.’