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IN THE MEDIA

Interview with Han Nefkens in La Vanguardia

LA VANGUARDIA 25
15 March 2010

The writer and collector Han Nefkens recounts his experience living with HIV

“It awakened in me the desire to share”

The writer and art collector Han Nefkens (Rotterdam, 1854), has been fighting HIV for his own life since he found out he was HIV positive in 1987. He was 33 years old, with a stable relationship – with Felipe, his current partner – and he had been working in Mexico as a correspondent for Dutch public radio for eleven years. “You think the film of your life is just starting. And suddenly, you see the credits roll!” At that moment, he remembers, life expectancy for a person with HIV was eight months, a year and a half at most. “At first you don’t believe it. Positive? What does that mean? Maybe it’s something good. No? Then they must have made a mistake, for sure. But no. It was no error. Then you enter the medical circuit. You must take medication every day. You have to look after your health… But what really hurts is the loss of that childish illusion that you are going to live for ever…”

He needed time to absorb the news and find a place for it in his new life, to gather the strength with which to fight the shame and social stigma it entails. And when he was forced to stop and take a deep breath, AIDS gave him its first gift. “When you’re young you study, work or do a one particular thing because you will be able to do other things later. And suddenly that “later” doesn’t exist, it’s now or nothing. You learn to live each moment as if it were unique, without wasting a minute, every single one is important.” In 1991, the death of his brother, who was also ill with AIDS, plunged him back into a black hole, which he found his way out of thanks to writing. “I didn’t do it as a form of therapy. It is extremely difficult to write, it is much easier to forget. My life as a writer simply began on that day because I had never had such as powerful reason to write until then.”

His first book “Blood Brothers”, came out in 1995, and a year later the new combinations of drugs for AIDS treatment expanded his horizon. “I began to feel much better, my T4 improved, I no longer felt so tired, and the end – which had felt so near – began to retreat, to get further away.” We could say this was the start of Han Nefkens’ third life. “Suddenly there is hope, and the idea that maybe I can live to 70 came back to me. The problem is that my organism creates resistance to the drugs, so every year and a half or so I need new medication, which luckily keeps appearing. Thank God I have the financial means and a good doctor in Holland who helps me to access them, participating in programs and research. And that’s how I’ve ended up here, where I live now, with an appointment in my pocket with Doctor Bonaventura Clotet. For me, Barcelona has the meaning of life.”

And art reminds him that he is indeed alive. One day, on a tour of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he was transfixed for five hours by the Bill Viola video “The Crossing”, in which a man is consumed by fire. A short time later, it was the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist in New York who captivated him with the sensuality of her colours and shapes. “I want a lot of people to see this,” he thought. How? By starting an art collection, the H+F Collection, which he doesn’t display on the walls of his home, but  in museums like the Central Museum in Utrecht, the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam or the Sitchting de Pont in Tilburg. “It is not philanthropy. I am driven by the desire to share, so that the things that move me can also affect other people,” adds Nefkens. “For me, starting the collection in 2000 was liberating. Like any member of a well-off family in Holland, I used part of my incoming money to live, and I invested the rest. I realised that this was not what I wanted. I wanted to use it for something that moved me, that filled me with pleasure: art. The first decision, then, involved giving myself permission to use it.” He currently owns over 400 works. The story darkens once more in 2001, when HIV infected his brain and he lost the ability to read, write, talk, eat, walk… It took him two years to be able to connect things to their names again. He writes about it in “Borrowed Time. Messages from a Distant Land”, a moving, lucid account that has already been published in Holland (he is looking for a Spanish publisher!) After reading it, it seems miraculous to have him here talking animatedly, peppering the conversation with candid laughter. “I became a two year old child. And that was a terrible shock. I was very close to death, and like anybody who makes that journey, when I returned I was no longer the same person. My desire is to share, my thoughts, my experiences, my money… I am still alive thanks to the drugs, but there a millions of people who do not have access to them. It is unbearably unfair. I cannot keep living while I see how others die.”

This is why, in 2006, he reinvented himself as an “activist” and created the ArtAids Foundation, which uses art in the fight against AIDS, inviting artists to create pieces that deal with the illness. Its first exhibition in Barcelona, On the Outside Looking In, has merited an award from the Associació Catalana de Critics d’Art. It also runs another program in Thailand, where the foundation provides integral care for 200 children with AIDS and their families. “It’s as though we had adopted them,” he says. And he provides funds for research projects, among them the Can Ruti centre directed by Doctor Clotet. “It hasn’t been fashionable to talk about side effects for some time now, to talk about AIDS. Forty million people have it…, it’s so common… ,” he satirized in “Borrowed Time,” and here and now he warns of the importance of prevention, the fact that it is important to talk about it, and he can’t think of a better means of doing it than through art. “People have let their guard down. They think the drugs fix everything. But they don’t know about the side effects, nausea, tiredness…., and that they increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But I’m not complaining. I celebrate life every single day.”

ON FINDING OUT

“You think the film of
your life is just starting,
and the credits roll!”

Han Nefkens, photographed at the ArtAids head office in Barcelona.

THE POSITIVE SIDE

“You learn to live every
moment as though it
were unique, without
wasting a single minute”

TERESA SESÉ
Barcelona