Han Nefkens is an atypical, ‘socialising’ collector.
He doesn’t stockpile artworks; he lends them to museums
Out of his fight against AIDS and the aphasia that paralysed him, a totally new man was born
Jesús Ruiz Mantilla 15-04-2012
It isn’t difficult to find wandering Dutchman Han Nefkens. One sea is his constant point of departure and return: the Mediterranean. He found his way there, to Nice, when he was 19 and in search of light and streets filled with people. And for years he has berthed at another of its ports, Barcelona, where he is thoroughly and peacefully enjoying his third lifetime...
The thing is that Han Nefkens (Rotterdam, 1954) is, above all, a survivor. A survivor who circumstances have led to become a generous art collector, a literary patron, a promoter of fashion projects, a writer – he never abandoned his vocation as a journalist – and a traveller. A survivor who has been fighting the AIDS virus since 1987 and who fought aphasia and encephalitis, which almost ended his life ten years ago and led him to be forcibly reborn.
‘Reborn’ is an appropriate word in his case. The virus attacked his brain and left him completely paralysed. For three months he didn't know how to eat, he couldn't walk or talk, he didn't recognise anybody or even himself. Nefkens wrote about it in his autobiography Tiempo prestado (borrowed time), published by Ediciones Alfabia, in which he recounts this borderline experience that turned him into a different person, alien to himself.
Collecting art and undertaking artistic projects turned out to be his salvation after many personal hardships. It has given meaning to almost everything. But he doesn't collect art in order to stockpile works; he does it in order to share. “Art fascinated me, so I asked a friend who is the director of an art museum what I could do to contribute in an original way. I wanted to set up effective ties between creators and the public,” says Nefkens at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, where he has donated a work by Pipilotti Rist. “‘If you entrust it to us, I will accept it on deposit,’ he told me.” That was the start of Nefkens’ ‘socialising’ arts patronage.
“Collecting is a myth, like planting a tree in your garden and believing that it is yours. It will always belong to the natural order of life, just as an artistic creation belongs to the society that it addresses.”
His first purchase was also a work by Pipilotti Rist, entitled 54. It was the start of a coherent line of work that has led him delve into a series of ongoing obsessions: “One thing that they all have in common is a contained power. But I also seek poetics, light, a portrayal of absence or death, because ultimately I think that all works of art are a revolt against death,” says Nefkens Focusing on these and other traits, Nefkens – who was the recipient of the Best International Collector award at this year’s ARCO – has brought together work by Rist and also Sam Taylor-Wood, Bill Viola, Shirin Neshat, Jeff Wall, Féliz González Torres...
He always wanted to leave the Netherlands. “Just as many people don’t feel at home in their own body, I never felt at home in my country,” he maintains. “I wanted to live in a place with palm trees, sunlight and packed streets. I was after a more open atmosphere, more colour.” This desire to run away led him to the south of France first, like Van Gogh, and then to the United States and Mexico, where he found the love of his life, Felipe. And then, to Barcelona.
Mexico buffeted and caressed him in equal parts with its revelry, its tragedies and its gaudy colours. There he lived life to the full. And there, one awful day, without being quite sure of what he was being told, he was diagnosed with AIDS: “It was November 19th, 1987, at seven in the afternoon.... They gave me the paper and I opened it in the middle of the street. It said ‘positive’; I was so confused I wasn't even sure whether that was a good or a bad thing.”
There are some shocks that you never forget. Specially back then, when the news implied death: “I was very lucky that medication kept me alive until 1996, and then drugs appeared that turned it into a chronic illness, into part of you.”
It was a time of fear, ignorance and lack of understanding. A time of complete uncertainty and of hoping for the miracle. “Many people who contracted the virus with me didn't live to tell the tale. I was forced to get used to living with very uncomfortable questions: Will I die? Will I get fired? It obviously became a lot easier when I felt I the support from my work colleagues and family, even though to them the word AIDS was tantamount to death. I was working as a correspondent in Mexico at the time.”
Strong feelings do not fade in your memory. They take root and settle in a corner of your brain and your skin, fiercely anchored to the memories of trauma: “It was like going to the cinema and watching a trailer for a film that hasn’t been released yet, even though you are actually living that film already.”
Over time, Nefkens overcame those obstacles. But even so, others came. A complication and a brain infection finished off one Han. And once again, fortune and the right medication in a hospital in the Netherlands, where they admitted him when he became aware the symptoms, allowed another Han to be born. “I don’t remember much about the first one; if I made an effort I would be able to remember what he was like, but he doesn’t interest me.”
He prefers to remain with the present one. Much more philosophical, more thoughtful and serene. “Much more conscious of the fragility of human beings, but also – for precisely the same reason – of their strength.” The new Han prefers to cancel commitments in favour of taking his dog for a long walk. The new Han knows that he shouldn’t put off for later anything that he can do now.
Perhaps all of this comes from being forced to redouble his efforts. “It is annoying to have to learn to talk, eat and walk again, but it has its good side.” Such as? “The feeling of doing certain familiar things for the first time. The feeling of being a virgin...”
Perhaps this isn’t a nuance that everybody who has been through the experience picks up on. But it entails an enormous power in itself. To be a virgin when it comes to tasting a Sachertort, a virgin when enjoying a plate of lettuce simply drizzled with oil, vinegar and salt. “Who gets the chance to experience something for the first time a second time?” he asks in Borrowed Time. A virgin when making love. “It was easier than learning to walk again, maybe because I was lying down and there was no reason to fear falling,” says Nefkens. Enviable and paradoxical, aware of having found a pleasurable way to move forward along the sinuous and sometimes unsure task of reconstructing oneself.
He overcame many imbalances. “I was extreme in everything. I had to deal with imbalance and total lack of control. I did whatever I felt like; if I wanted to eat three pieces of cake, I did, and if I wanted to buy six shirts, I bought them. It was hard to learn rationality, normality.” Having lived through these crushing sensations now often makes him feel invincible. If he compares his relationship to both illnesses, he finds that AIDS took over him in an abstract sense, and the setbacks of encephalitis were much more concrete. This has made him brave.
“I don’t know if I feel capable of everything, but I’ll give it a go.” Creating a daring collection, setting up literary grants for young writers – like the one he recently announced with Alfabia Ediciones and Universitat Pompeu i Fabra –, continuing to write... “I can do it, I have the means, so why not throw myself into it?” He answers his own question. The family fortune inherited from an architect and building contractor father allows him to. Although he acts with full awareness that it can all end suddenly, at any moment: “Even so, I will go with the feeling that I have pursued my desires; I will never regret anything that I have done, and I didn't put anything off for another day.”