I want to be part of this world

Daiga Rudzāte

An interview with writer and art collector Han Nefkens


“I think the impact of art is much greater than we think. Because just imagine a world without art. Without photography, without music, without museums, without paintings. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to imagine. It would be the end, right?” So says writer and art collector Han Nefkens during our conversation. A Dutchman by birth, he has lived little less than twenty years in the Netherlands, having never quite felt as if he belonged in his native country. At age 19 Nefkens left to study in France. He later moved to the United States, and he has also lived in Mexico, where he taught English in addition to working as a journalist in Mexico City for Dutch national public radio. He returned to Europe in 1987, after having been diagnosed with HIV.

Such an eventful biography has made Nefkens a person who looks at life through the prism of intellectual thought as well as emotion. He also seems to exhibit an openness towards the incomprehensible and the different as well as a desire to delve deeply and participate. Above all is a thirst to experience every moment and the ability to appreciate the vividness and beauty of the world. “There are no insignificant moments in life,” says Nefkens.

When he returned to Europe in 1987, Nefkens did so to be closer to his family. His first book, Ties That Bind, was published in 1995. It’s a partially autobiographical novel about two brothers who are both infected with the AIDS virus. Nefkens has never hidden the fact that he is HIV-positive. In 2006 he founded the ArtAids Foundation with the goal of breaking down prejudices. When I ask him whether art is capable of doing that, he says: “I know that art can do it. (..) It heals me, so it probably works for other people, too.”

Nefkens confesses that art has fascinated him since childhood. However, the turning point came when he saw Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s exhibition Remake of the Weekend at the Palais de Tokyo in 1999. “I stayed there for two and a half hours, and when I came out, I said, ‘I want to be part of this world.’”

As an art collector and patron, Nefkens has gone through several phases of development, none of which can be called traditional or usual. Right now, he is focusing much of his energy on the Han Nefkens Foundation, which is based in Barcelona. The foundation highlights emerging and mid-career artists, especially those who work with video art, by providing financial support to produce their work and ensuring them an international platform.

In addition to art, Nefkens is also passionate about cutting-edge fashion. As reflected in the media, he just recently bought an extraordinary dress at the spring/summer 2019 edition of Paris Fashion Week. Created by the legendary fashion duo Viktor&Rolf for the Fashion Statements collection, the dress has a gigantic message written on it: “I want a better world.” Nefkens donated the dress to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, thus adding to the collection of 23 other garments by Viktor&Rolf that he has already donated to the museum. “Clothes are more than something to make people pretty,” he says. “They tell a story as well.”

Shirin Neshat, “Tooba”, 2002. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona

You’ve spent most of your life outside the Netherlands. So you don’t have a constant, mostly unchanging geographical point of reference for your life as lots of other people do. And the Han Nefkens Foundation, although based in Barcelona, also operates on a global scale.

Yeah, that’s true. I left the Netherlands when I was 19, after I finished high school. And I left because I never felt at home there. You know…there are women who were born in the body of a man, and men who were born in the body of a woman – transgender people – and they have to take hormones and sometimes undergo complicated surgery to become the person they feel they are. In my case it was very simple: I felt that I was born in the wrong country, that I could not relate to the Netherlands. And in my case the solution was also very simple: just leave and go somewhere else.

So, I went to the south of France, to Nice, to study French literature. And there I said, “Yes, this is my world.” The Mediterranean life, where people are outside, the cafés, the palm trees… Just the life of people being accessible because they’re always outside. This is what I loved. So, from there I went to the United States, where I studied, and from there to Mexico.

Mexico was a place where I felt comfortable to be an outsider. Because – and now that I look back on my feelings about the Netherlands, I think this is the problem I had – I felt like an outsider. That’s a very painful experience when you’re supposed to belong in a place. But when you’re truly an outsider, somebody from another culture, then it’s okay. Then it’s another identity; you can relate to the place where you are, but you don’t have to feel as though you’re one of them. And for me, I guess that’s the way to be. To be an outsider and observing, and sometimes participating as an outsider. I felt that very strongly in Mexico.

I absolutely love Mexico, because that’s where I met Felipe, my partner, 40 years ago. Through a partner you get access into a culture that you wouldn’t otherwise get. You get to know a family and you get to know friends; you know about their habits, you know about the songs they grew up with, the stories they tell each other, the things they look for… Mexicans are very hospitable. They let you into their hearts. I was part of Felipe’s family right from the beginning. In one sense, I lived in Mexico as a Mexican, doing the things Mexicans do. But in another sense, I was an outsider looking at things like somebody from another culture. Which is…again, as I said, it’s a position I love very much. 

You know, when I was young, in Holland, I played a little game. I would imagine that I could slip into the head of another person and then go with this person to his house, see how the person had lunch, what they ate for lunch, what their life was like and observe their life from inside their head. And then I would leave the house with that person and jump from their head into the head of somebody else. I would have all these trips entirely in my imagination. And now, in a way, I’m still doing the same thing, because through art I skip into the head of an artist and see the world and life the way they see it. Apparently, from a very young age I had this strong desire to see life through the eyes of other people, and I think that brought me to art.

Anri Sala, “1395 Days without Red”, 2011. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona.

How did you end up in Barcelona?

I lived in Mexico and worked there as a journalist at a time when there was a lot going on in Central America with the Contras and the situation in Guatemala. I enjoyed being a journalist, I enjoyed what I did, because I could use this distance, so to say, and the knowledge I had to give form to and to write about those things. But then in 1987 I found out that I have HIV, and there was absolutely no medical support for me in Mexico at the time. So, I went to the United States for a short while and then decided to go back to Europe, to be closer to my family, because in 1987 having HIV meant that you only had a couple of years to live. So, I didn’t want to be so far away from my family. Because Felipe speaks English and Spanish, the choice was between London and Barcelona, and we spent time in both places. But in the end we decided to settle here in Barcelona because of the pleasant Mediterranean lifestyle. You know, the climate and the food and the things going on outdoors. So that’s how I ended up in Barcelona.

Arash Nassiri, “Tehran-geles”, 2014. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona.

Your interest in art began after you returned to Europe, right? And at first, or so I understand, it was a standard relationship between art and the collector…

Yeah…but not so standard.I’d always had a relationship with art. We had art in our house – not contemporary art but 17th-century paintings. So I was used to being surrounded by art. But again…as a young boy, because I felt so different, I was a little bit isolated. So, as a boy of eight or nine, I would go to the museum instead of playing football with the other boys (laughs). I would go to the museum and just sit there and look at paintings for hours, and I would try to imagine what the person that painted the painting thought, what kind of life he or she had. So, art was always important for me, but it never occurred to me that I could also have a role in the field of art, because I’m not an artist.

Pipilotti Rist, “Fifty Cinquante” (Installation for a Parking Lot), 2000. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona

That is, until I went to Paris in 1999 and saw a poster for the Remake of the Weekend exhibition by Pipilotti Rist curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Palais de Tokyo. I’d never heard of her, and I thought, “Well this is an inviting title – Remake of the Weekend – and an artist with a funny name. So why not go in and take a look at it?” And I was absorbed by her universe, by the sensuality of her videos. I could almost smell the wet grass, I could almost feel her skin… I stayed there for two and a half hours, and when I came out, I said, ‘I want to be part of this world.’ I want to share what I think is beautiful with other people.

Dinh Q. Lê, "The Colony", 2017. Produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona. Installation view. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

This became your emotional point of reference. But purely from a practical perspective, how did you enter the field? Did you have a vision or a plan for how to become a part of the art world?

Of course, I didn’t know how to enter that world. So, for a year I just talked with various people in the art world to see what my role could be. And then I finally found somebody: Sjarel Ex, who’s now the director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. At the time, though, he was the director of the Centraal Museum Utrecht. And he agreed to accept the artwork that I bought – international works of art – at his museum on long-term loan.

The first work I bought was by Pipilotti Rist. It was shown at the museum, and that’s how the collaboration started. Right from the beginning, I began collecting with the thought of how the art would look in a museum. I could buy a series of, say, 15 photographs, installations, etc. – big works of art that I wouldn’t be able to buy otherwise.

I did that for several years. And then I realised that lots of artists, even well-known artists, sometimes have problems financing the production of new work, particularly if it’s new media. So I thought, rather than buying something that’s already finished, I wanted to help the artist and the art institution by making it possible for the artist to create a new work – producing work together with the museum. And I found that much more satisfying than buying something that’s already finished, because you’re there right from the beginning. The way it worked with the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is that we would all sit down together – the director of the museum, the different curators, Hilde (Hilde Teerlinck, the director of the Han Nefkens Foundation – Ed.) and I – and we would look at the proposals from various artists of what they wanted to do. So I was there when the work of art was still just an idea and nothing else.

After we came to an agreement with an artist, there was, of course, the whole creative process ahead of us, and in the end, the work of art itself. I feel very strongly that the creative process is almost as important, or perhaps just as important, as the finished product. At least for me it is. In fact, for me it’s more important – and I think for the artist as well – because the process is alive. I like to be involved in it. That’s really the fun part of what we’re doing. When the artwork is finished...okay, it’s finished and people look at it, but there’s not much you can do with it.

Right now you’ve turned your attention to video art. How did that happen?

It’s not like I sit down and say, “OK, this is what I want to do, and in five years I want to be here, and in ten years I want to be there.” Art doesn’t work that way, either, so we sort of…we think of a direction, and then things come along our way. And that’s how two years ago, after having done so many different things – like working with museums, commissioning works of art, being active in cutting-edge fashion, giving scholarships, helping artists in many different ways, even working in literature and having scholarships for Spanish-speaking writers – I decided that, in order to do something well, you have to focus. You have to do one thing, or a couple of things, but not too many, because otherwise you spread yourself too thin. Too thin as far as time is concerned, and of course also as far as money is concerned.

But all these different aspects were appealing to me. I was interested in all these different worlds, as it were, but they didn’t strengthen one another. What I did in literature didn’t help fashion, and fashion didn’t help art. They were all very separate things. So I decided I want to do just one thing, so that everything I do strengthens this one goal. And I decided on video art, because that’s really how it all started – video art has always been my passion. And I think that video art also lends itself very well to commissioning. Plus, there are very few foundations and institutions that help just video artists. So, there’s a real need. It’s also a very good way to explore other cultures, because we work with a lot of artists from non-Western cultures.

Zhou Tao, “BLUE and RED”, 2014. Produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona. 

But why are you so fascinated by video art? Why is your relationship with video so close?

I think it’s because I’m a writer and I tell stories, and that’s what you see with video art more than with a photo or a painting or an installation. Video art allows so much more leeway to develop a story. Other media are, as it were, snapshots of a moment. But with video you can have depth. And I think that’s what interests me. Also, I don’t just like the medium; I like the quality of the medium. You know, I studied radio, television and film in Philadelphia when I was very young. Of course, never thinking that I would later be involved with video art, which hardly existed at the time, but just because I was interested in that. I think the beauty of video art is also that it’s…video art can be like a poem. I think that’s what I like so much about it.

Is aesthetic quality important for you?

Yes, it is important for me. But the good thing is that, since we’ve been helping to produce art, lots of people have become involved, including a jury. The choice of who we’re going to produce with is not only mine. My voice is only one out of five. So, sometimes an artist is selected who does not have this aesthetic quality that I like so very much. And I think that’s good, because it teaches me to appreciate different styles.

Could you explain a little about how the Han Nefkens Foundation works?

We produce videos by emerging artists, and we do that in two ways. One way is through collaboration with institutions and art fairs. They’re called the “awards”. For example, we have an award with the Tàpies Foundation, we have an award now with Loop and with ARCO, we have an award in Korea and in Quito. The awards are always for a certain region. In Korea it’s Korean artists, the Loop award is for Asian artists, and the one with the Tàpies Foundation is for Middle Eastern artists.

So, we choose about ten scouts (who can be artists themselves, or art critics or curators) in these different regions, and each of them sends us three candidates. We receive 30 portfolios of artists, because the awards are based on what the artists have done so far. Just the excitement of being able to see so many artists that I would not have known otherwise is already wonderful. And so we – Hilde and I and people from the art institution that we’re working with – do a preselection, and then we generally have about eight artists left. Then we have an international jury that chooses the winner. We often try to have these meetings during certain art events, because the people from the museums are there anyway. Then we decide who the winner is. Practically speaking, though, it’s always done through talking…not like a strict vote. It’s like, you know, we look at the work of art, and then we think, first of all, is this an artist who’s good and has a lot of potential? And if that’s the case, is this an artist who will be helped by the award. Because it might be an artist who has already shown work at the Pompidou, and so, at this moment, they don’t need us anymore. But if it’s an artist who has only been shown locally, then it would be good to show that artist somewhere else. That’s important. So we all then come to the conclusion that this one will be the winner.

Then the artist gets money to produce a new video and also money as an artist’s fee. That video will then be shown at the art institution we’re working with, and we try to show it in other places as well. With the idea that if the artist is seen in different parts of the world, that will help his or her career. We hope that after producing one or two videos with the artist, they won’t need us anymore and can go on by themselves.

You work with artists from all over the globe.

Yes, exactly.

Do you think that, in today’s world, art has a nationality? Is it still possible to recognise nationality through art?

It’s difficult to say, because already from the beginning we know where the artist is from, right? So we already have this prejudgment. But, of course, there are different cultures and different ways of thinking. For example, we might say that we in the West are much more linear – like having one narrative going from point A to point B. In Asia people have a very different way of thinking that’s much more circular. Of course, taking all sorts of other things into consideration, but for them the narrative process is often much less direct; it’s sort of moving around somehow, and it has a different pace as well. There’s no rush to go from A to B. It’s like an exploration of everything that’s around us, and then we’ll see where we end up. This is what I’ve noticed with Asia.

With Latin America, I’ve noticed that artists are very concerned and involved with what’s going on in their country. With the political situation, with the lack of democracy sometimes, with climate change or, for example, with the fact that poor farmers are being taken advantage of and have to leave their land. And the Middle East, of course, has a lot to do with war. Lots of artists in Lebanon talk about the civil war there, what it has done and how all of that still lives on. So yes, I think you can see certain differences.

Sojung Jun. "La nave de los locos", 2016. Produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona.

Is it true that you have a kind of love affair with Asia? Why is that?

Yeah, that’s true. I think it’s because of what I just told you about their view of the world, how everything is interconnected, how there’s no rush to go from A to B. What I also like very much in Asia is that a lot is left unsaid. The idea is that you read between the lines and that you understand silence rather than words. And I like this very much, coming as I do from a culture where everything had to be named and everything had to be said, otherwise people wouldn’t understand. I like the way how in Asia you sort of…understand by intuition or inference, but not everything is stated out loud.

I also like the fluidity in Asia. We’re so concerned about identity: who we are and how we should behave according to the identity we choose. But in Asia it’s all very fluid. Everything depends on the moment. It depends on the time, it depends on the situation, and it depends on the context. I like that. I like the unsaid.

Do you think that in today’s world, which is so very turbulent, art has the ability to change anything?

Yes, I’m absolutely convinced of it. Because through art we look at ourselves. And we understand ourselves. And even if it’s about another culture, it nevertheless says something about our own culture as well. I think the impact of art is much greater than we think. Because just imagine a world without art. Without photography, without music, without museums, without paintings. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to imagine. It would be the end, right? So yes, of course, art can change things.

You once said that the ArtAids Foundation was set up with the aim of breaking the stigma. Do you think that art can do that?

I know that art can do it. I’ll give you just one example. We had a beautiful exhibition, You are Not Alone at the Joan Miró Foundation in 2011. The foundation is a wonderful place to work with because of the team, but also because it gets so many visitors and a lot of people from abroad as well. And so, when those people went to see the works of Miró, they also passed through the temporary exhibition we had there, and we had a book set out where people could write down their impressions. One young man wrote that, thanks to this exhibition, he was now able, and felt confident enough, to tell his family that he was living with HIV. So, I think that speaks for itself.

Do you agree that art can also be used as a healing tool?

Well, it heals me (laughs), so it probably works for other people, too!

You focus on new and unknown art, which means that you see things that are completely different, unexpected, even revolutionary. Do you believe that the avantgarde is still possible?

Yes, it is. But I think we should be careful, because when we say avantgarde, we immediately get an image in our heads of something very complicated and something that has to be different from what we knew before. So, in that sense, we’re prejudiced. I think it’s better to just look at what’s going on and not to be too concerned with labels.

You know, one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by cutting-edge fashion, and particularly with young fashion designers, is that they’re so very different from the kind of stuffy world that used to be before them. Young fashion designers are really connected with the rest of the world. They’re in contact with each other. They’re very aware about what’s going on socially. They’re very concerned about using proper raw materials that are non-polluting and are made in a decent way by people who are not basically working as slaves. They’re concerned about the social role of their clothes.

You touched upon another one of your passions. In 2006 you founded the Fashion on the Edge Foundation. This is an initiative of yours and fashion curator José Teunissen that focuses on the cutting edge of fashion and the visual arts.

I’ve always been interested in fashion in an aesthetic way. But in 2004, when I was at the AIDS conference in Bangkok, I saw the work of Adriana Bertini, a Brazilian artist who makes dresses and gowns and clothes from condoms in a variety of colours. I bought them, had them packed up and sent them to the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, where the fashion curator made a beautiful exhibition. The clothes were put on pedestals in a dark room but with spotlights on them, and, of course, all of a sudden they gained a different dimension about them and a different glow, a different colour.

So, there I saw that clothes are more than something to make people pretty. They tell a story as well. That’s where my interest in cutting-edge fashion started. I started working with José Teunissen, who is now a dean at the London College of Fashion, and she introduced me to Viktor&Rolf, Walter Van Beirendonck and a lot of these avantgarde designers. With them, too, I saw that everything is a process. It’s always ongoing. They’re always investigating, always looking for different ways to express how they see the world and what they want to tell us.

Viktor&Rolf. Fashion Statements collection. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona

I guess the market doesn’t really reflect the true face of contemporary fashion, or art, for that matter. Are they in fact two different worlds that have nothing in common?

Completely, I agree with that 100%. I’m not at all involved or interested in the art market. I have nothing to do with it. It’s commercial and has nothing to do with art. I’m interested in art and the production of art. I don’t even follow the market, although sometimes I do see the things going on there. It’s so decadent…the prices have become so outrageous, they have nothing to do with reality anymore.

I also feel that it’s difficult for young artists. We get this idea that if you’re not discovered by the time you’re 24, you might as well forget it. Right? And then all these galleries and people who look for promising young artists, and then they buy everything those artists produce, hoping the work will increase in value. They’re slaughtering these young artists. How can you develop when at age 27 or 28 your work is being sold for millions, and then all of a sudden nobody’s interested in you anymore? What do you do from there? It’s not a healthy process. It’s very difficult. I also see it with the artists we work with: the demands of galleries and the market and what the artists really need to develop are not the same. They need time to develop, and they need a certain guidance, but more than anything they need time. If they have to produce ten shows a year, they become like a factory. But I understand it, because it’s very tempting, of course, to get all this recognition and to get the feeling that you’re an important artist. But only history will tell if you’re an important artist or not, not us (laughs). 

But who cares if I think this isn’t a good way of developing as an artist – it happens anyway. We talk with our artists and try to tell them that their own integrity is the most important thing. That although it can be very appealing to get all these offers, you have to be very selective. You have to choose what’s right for you at the time, and that’s difficult for young artists to see.

You work very closely with museums. It’s common in today’s world that art institutions boast about record numbers of visitors and will do anything to make those numbers rise even higher. On the one hand, it’s great that people are going to museums. But at the same time, museums strive to offer programmes that will draw in more visitors…which is easier to do with a blockbuster exhibition than with unknown names. British art critic Jonathan Jones once wrote that “the blockbuster exhibition encourages an idiotic attitude to art”.

Yeah, of course. This is now a trend not only for museums but with everything – this emphasis on quantity. Quality has nothing to do with it. That’s why all museums feel pressured to have blockbusters and exhibitions that they know will attract visitors, because they need a certain amount of visitors in order to survive. It’s just so typical of how the world functions today. That’s the case for museums, but it’s also the case for hospitals and even for education, for universities. People have to study as soon as possible and then get good jobs, because that’s how you see the value of the university. The idea of Bildung – of becoming a complete person who knows about philosophy and history and so on…that even if you become an architect, or an engineer, or a doctor, you have to know about the values of the Greeks and the Romans and what they told us – that’s still valid. These are amazing things that were told 2000 years ago. Or even if you look at Chinese culture. It’s so important that we know about them in order to…to live the right life. That’s all philosophy.

The question of philosophy is really “how do you live?” And that question is not asked anymore. It’s not asked because you’re supposed to be successful, you’re supposed to make money, you’re supposed to find recognition, but these things have nothing to do with the question “how do you live?” That’s been completely forgotten. I’m talking about universities, but the same goes for museums as well. Museums can show you what’s valuable, what’s been kept for centuries. And it’s the same in contemporary art. There’s an enormous supply of art, and then the museum has to make a choice: which of all these things that we have we are going to show our audience and why? And if the only criteria is “we’re going to show this because a lot of people will like it,” then I think that’s very insufficient. You want to show something because it tells us something about the world, about the lives of people. Because it helps them to think about what kind of life they want to have. It seems that we no longer have the luxury to think about that.


But it’s so important! Because that’s exactly what’s being lost. Look what’s going on! All the lies that are being told, all the so-called values, all the hysteria around insignificant things. If you look at the news, so much of it is taken up by things that are irrelevant. There’s nothing there. It’s really all just hot air. And that’s what people produce, and that’s what people see all the time. Again, it’s the question of “how do we live?” What kind of person do you want to be?

Shirin Neshat, “Tooba”, 2002. Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona

What kind of art do you have in your home?

I have work by Shirin Neshat, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Karin Sander, Roni Horn. About 17, 18 pieces in all.

But no videos?

No, I don’t have videos at home. But what we do is, when we have people over, we sometimes project certain videos.

Do you still write?

Yes (starts laughing). The dilemma is always between living life and reflecting on life. And in order to reflect, you have to withdraw and create this silence around you and get rid of all the input. That has been very difficult over these past years, because we’ve been doing so many things. It’s not a question of having one or two hours every day to write – that’s not it. You have to have quiet in your head in order to write. But I feel… I am… I have started to write again. And I feel that I should still write at least one more book.

Han Nefkens. Photo: ©Roberto Ruiz

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