Han Nefkens © Roberto Ruiz
From Collecting to Caring
Love at first sight really does exist. When I saw the exhibition Pipilotti Rist: Remake of the Weekend at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 1999, I was absorbed in the universe Rist created with her videos. I smelled the wet earth, I felt her skin against mine, and I swayed along with her singing voice. When I left the museum two and a half hours later, I knew I wanted to be a part of that world and share what moved me with other people.
Since I’m not an artist, the only way to do so is by collecting work that is shown at art institutions. The first work I bought was a video installation by Pipilotti Rist that is now on long-term loan as a promised gift at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen along with 400 other works lent to different museums.
Along the way, I found out that many artists, even well-known ones, often find it difficult to finance new productions. So, instead of buying art I started to commission new works in collaboration with art institutions. The directors and curators of the museums and I would discuss proposals from different artists, and I was able to follow the creative process from inception up until completion. I saw that the end product would often be very different from the initial idea and I realised that making art was not the rigid execution of a fixed plan, but an organic process where changes are made along the way. I took that as an example of how I wanted my Foundation to work.
I also got involved in the production of cutting-edge fashion, I created ArtAids, a Foundation that fights the stigma around HIV/Aids through art, and I set up grants for Spanish-speaking writers. However, as time went by, I began to realise that since these projects were situated in such different disciplines, they did not strengthen each other. On the contrary, the identity of my Foundation had blurred, and my efforts, both financially and attention-wise, were too scattered.
That is why in 2016, I decided to focus exclusively on my first love, video art. The Han Nefkens Foundation now supports emerging international video artists through Awards, Production Grants and Mentorship Grants. We work intensively with artists in a made-to-measure way, according to each artist’s needs. We not only produce new work with them and find international platforms to show that work, but we also finance residencies abroad, produce books, purchase working tools such as new cameras, find technical support, bring them into contact with art institutions and other artists, and we take care of travel arrangements and red tape. Equally important, we serve as a sounding board and provide curatorial assistance if required.
The approach of the Foundation is both personal and personalised in an effort to give artists the most precious commodity we have: our time.
The Han Nefkens Foundation
Through forging connections, art can be a healing tool
How art can help you cope with the isolation and loneliness, and living with HIV/AIDS
Han Nefkens, Dutch writer and art collector
I was a lonely child growing up in a quiet suburb of Rotterdam. I felt an extreme responsiveness to stimuli: perhaps it had to do with my handicap, having been born without a right hand and with deformed fingers on my left, but above all, because I felt different.
It was as though I had no internal filter to abate the impulses of the outside world. I experienced sounds, light, smells, colours, the moods of people (even of those I didn’t know) with an almost unbearable intensity. This hyper-sensitivity was also expressed physically; I had regular bouts of asthma, rashes and eczema that often kept me from going to school. Wearing wool pants for Sunday mass was a torment, as were the labels on shirts that itched my neck.
I experienced sounds, light, smells, colours, the moods of people (even of those I didn’t know) with an almost unbearable intensity.
My sense of being an outsider was further deepened by the feeling that life was happening elsewhere and that I was cut off from it. I was convinced that I should have been born in a faraway country where life took place on wide boulevards and in bustling market places, unlike in our neighbourhood, where even on balmy summer evenings the streets were deserted.
However, whenever the occasion presented itself to be with others, I became paralysed. One afternoon while drawing in my room, I heard the shouts and cries of my classmates. I wanted to fly down the stairs and run into the street to join them, but an invisible force held me back. All I could do was look at them playing from behind my window.
I must have been around ten when my mother saw me observing one of the paintings at home. She suggested I go to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in the centre of the city, where she herself regularly attended guided tours with other ladies from the neighbourhood.
The same sensibility that often made it difficult to function in daily life now helped me to appreciate art. I spent hours looking at Kees van Dongen’s painting of a woman with big dark eyes and a colourful shawl. I got joy out of seeing the bright red and blue skirts in the green garden of a Munch painting. I dreamed away with Cezanne’s landscape near Aix, and I was excited by Willem de Kooning’s bold paint strokes.
I spent hours looking at Kees van Dongen’s painting of a woman with big dark eyes and a colourful shawl.
In the museum shop I bought postcards of the paintings that had particularly struck me and pinned them on my bedroom wall. They were the first things I saw in the morning and the last before going to sleep.
When years later I decided to start collecting, I immediately knew that I wanted to share the emotions that art arouses in me. Therefore, the works I bought went directly to several museums in the Netherlands where they will stay when I’m no longer here.
When I decided to start collecting, I immediately knew that I wanted to share the emotions that art arouses in me.
In order to celebrate our collaboration, I donated the installation Notion Motion by Olafur Elliason to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. Using simple components − wooden planking, a sponge, spotlights and three enormous water basins − Eliasson has made a monumental work that covers fifteen hundred square metres.
It was the power of the work’s simplicity that appealed to me. I enjoyed observing visitors laughing when they stood on the planks that made the water move, which in turn, put the whole installation in motion. Those visitors got lost in the work just as I had been absorbed by the museum’s paintings more than forty years earlier. By donating it, I forged a connection with people, even though we didn’t know each other.
I felt the same need to reach out to people through art in my effort to combat the stigma of HIV, with which I was diagnosed in 1987. I was fortunate to become a patient and, eventually, a close friend of Doctor Joep Lange, one of the world’s leading AIDS experts. When the International AIDS Conference was held in Bangkok in 2004, with Joep as its president, I organised an exhibition of works inspired by the theme of that year’s conference, ‘Access for All’. The exhibition’s curator, Hilde Teerlinck, invited ten international artists, including Lawrence Weiner, Rirkrit Tiranavija, Shirin Neshat, and General Idea, among others, to each make a work that we showed at the Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok.
I felt the same need to reach out to people through art in my effort to combat the stigma of HIV, with which I was diagnosed in 1987.
Hundreds of school children and families came to visit, and though most visitors had probably never talked about AIDS, it was mentioned on the signs with explanatory text. Through local and international media coverage, we reached many more people.
I saw how this exhibition was a catalyst for change, and that motivated me to set up the ArtAids Foundation, commissioning international artists to make work surrounding HIV/AIDS. Joep Lange became a member of the board of ArtAids, and his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, was also actively involved. Together we showed those works at exhibitions and events around the world. Through our work we were able to provide medical and social support for children living with HIV/AIDS in Bangkok who would otherwise have no access to care.
I saw how this exhibition was a catalyst for change, and that motivated me to set up the ArtAids Foundation, commissioning international artists to make work surrounding HIV/AIDS.
I wanted art to be part of these children’s lives, too, so we organised art camps where kids and their caregivers would go to a hotel on the beach for several days of games, counselling, and art-related activities.
During one of those camps, the children were asked to paint a heart with the eight things that were most important to them on a big piece of white cloth. Most children painted red, green and bright orange hearts with laughing faces, flowers and animals. But one nine-year-old boy, Jeerakan, who had lost both his parents and an older brother to AIDS, painted a heart with eight yellow prison bars. Then, when we were about to put the cloth on poles to form a linen mural, he quickly threw a blob of black paint over it. His was the only dark spot among the colourful hearts of the other children. When we put up the banner he smiled at me, and I still don’t know if it was a smile of relief because he had destroyed the prison in his heart or a smile to hide his sorrow. Perhaps both.
The importance of art in helping people break out of isolation became again clear during the exhibition ‘You are not Alone’ that we organised in 2011 at the Miro Foundation in Barcelona with works by Danh Vo, Elmgreen&Dragset, Latifa Echakhck, Deimantas Narkevicius, and David Goldblatt, among others. I was moved when I heard that a young man had written in the visitor’s book that thanks to the exhibition, he had finally gotten the courage to tell his parents he was living with HIV.
I was moved when I heard that a young man had written in the visitor’s book that thanks to the exhibition, he had finally gotten the courage to tell his parents he was living with HIV.
Joep Lange and Jacqueline van Tongeren were killed when the plane they were travelling on to the Aids Conference in Melbourne was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. On that occasion, too, I turned to art to come to terms with my grief. In the conferences for African AIDS specialists Jacqueline had organised, she’d involved artists. So I established a Fellowship for African artists in her name at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.
I visited one of the artists, Thierry Oussou from Benin, at his atelier there. His huge paintings explore the relationship between contemporary art and ethnographic objects through colourful blots, stripes, lines, grids, smears and drawings on black canvas. When I saw his work, I was comforted by the thought that I had created a link between him and Jacqueline, who would have loved his art.
Of course, there are also the direct connections through my art projects with people from many different cultures and experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I walked with two of our Korean artists along the river Han in Seoul and had a delicious Korean dinner at a small restaurant in a back alley. I saw the collection of ancient Vietnamese statues at the house of one of our artists in Saigon, and had conversations about the function of art in crisis situations with a Belgian museum director. In Barcelona, where I now live, I talked about Persian cinema with our Iranian artists from Dubai over a meal of arroz negro.
Not too long ago, I appreciated once more how art helps me to connect to the world.
Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been to any art venues for months until the exhibition of our Afghan artist Aziz Hazara opened at the Tapies Foundation in October of last year.
One of the installations consisted of five separate screens. On each screen a young boy blew the whistle that is used to warn people in Kabul that drones are on their way.
The boys stood on an arid hilltop overlooking the city; because of the strong wind, they struggled to stay upright. The smallest boy, Isa, was swept away again and again but each time he clambered back onto the rock.
Even though I had seen the videos many times on my computer, I was overcome by the effect of this larger-than-life presentation.
It made me realise again that through art, I become part of something immensely bigger than myself. And that is the exact opposite of what I felt as a boy in that far too quiet suburb of Rotterdam.